India is well known for Cricket, but the popularity of football in the last few years has been on the increase. The Indian league has attracted players such as Alessandro Del Piero, Nicolas Anelka, Robert Pires, Marco Materazzi, David Trezeguet, David James, Fredrik Ljungberg, Luis Garcia as well as Graham Stack, the former Arsenal and Wolves player.
Aside players, there are also coaches like Steve Coppell who was the coach of Reading football club for many years. He was in charge of Reading when they won the Championship 2005–06 season when Reading set a record 33 games unbeaten run.
Steve Coppell who was Graham Stack’s manager when they set the champions on fire during the 2005-2006 season brought Graham Stack to the Indian league immediately he took over Kerala Blasters – one of India’s best clubs.
In a recent interview, Graham Stack who was on the books of Arsenal and Wolves for many years revealed why he chose to leave the English league for a stint in one of Asia’s most popular clubs.
It was in the summer of 2016, Stack was waiting for a new contract offer from his then clubside, Barnet when the offer to move to India arrived.
“It wasn’t life-changing money, by any means,” says Stack. “It was a four-month contract that probably generated an 18-month salary for me over here.
“But the chance to embrace a new culture, a new environment, on the other side of the world, I just thought: ‘Wow, what a fantastic opportunity.”
Although offer meant Stack would have to leave behind his family in England, the offer was just too good for Stack to turn down even though as Stack would later admit, it was not life changing money.
“That was definitely the toughest challenge,” he admits. “If you’re getting paid hundreds of thousands of pounds, it becomes a very easy decision.
“But when you’re not, and you’re putting everything on hold back here – missing out on your son’s first day at school, their first Sunday league match, birthdays, christenings, stuff like that – it’s not an easy decision to make.
“There’s only so much Facetime and Skype and whatever else you can do.”
Stack, must however have felt he would not be alone in the Indian league at the time he joined. At the time, the law governing the Indian league indicated that each of the clubs must have between eight to ten foreign players and at least one big name player. All these was done in a bid to give the Indian league a bit of global appeal.
At the time, Aaron Hughes who played over 450 games for the trio of Fulham, Aston Villa and Newcastle was on the books of Kerala Blasters, the club that was interested in the services of Stack.
Michael Chopra and Antonio German later joined Stack at Kerala Blasters and it didn’t take long for them all to form a solid rapport between them.
“We had a real mix of different backgrounds, footballing experiences, cultures, religions,” he says. “It was a beautiful blend.
“We built morale on the training ground, with old v young games, internationals v non-internationals, foreigners v Indians.
“There were a few Indian leaders. A boy called Gurwinder Singh, who has captained India, and a boy called Mehtab Hossain, from Calcutta, who was also an Indian international.
“There was also a couple of boys from Punjab who liked a drop of whiskey.
“Sometimes, the Punjabi lads and a few of the other boys, along with myself, obviously, and Chops [Chopra] and Hughesy [Hughes], we’d go out and have a few drinks. We all got on great.”
Having been Jens Lehman’s number 2 at Arsenal in 2003, Stack was well equipped with good leadership skills and he soon assumed a mentoring role amongst his team mates at Kerala Blasters.
“I think they looked to us for a bit of guidance,” he says. “They were always intrigued and would want answers for questions, like what we were eating, what we were doing in the gym, why did we have a foam roller?
“At times, they were flabbergasted by the work we used to do, and I think we had to change their mentality.”
Not that they weren’t without talent.
“Individually, there were some very good Indian players over there,” he says. “There were certainly a couple in my team that would have been able to come over here and play in the Championship.
“But then there were others that would find it difficult to get into a League Two side.”
“It’s a little bit like the Scottish league, in that sense.”
Although Stack and his foreigner team mates at Kerala Blasters at the time were influential off the pitch, their influence on the pitch was quite limited as the law then meant only six foreign players could take to the pitch at the same time then.
“There was a game where I came off, when we were losing to Calcutta 1-0, because we’ve got a foreigner in goal and we need to get our Haitian international centre forward on the pitch to try and get us back in it.
“For the manager, it’s a bit of a conundrum, as your best XI doesn’t necessarily start.”
The Indian regular season runs between October and December, Stack, who was living in an hotel, had a schedule just like the schedule of a player playing in the UEFA champions league – he and his team mates were travelling for as long as 6,000 miles via numerous connecting flights.
“We had 80,000 people and, at times, you’d think the stadium was just going to collapse,” says Stack. “I’ve never experienced anything like it, and I never will.
“People couldn’t get in. The streets were 50 deep at times on the pavements with people spilling over onto the road.
“Real fanatics, but that was Kerala. Believe it or not, football is their primary sport, not cricket. That’s saying something.”
Before Stack and the other foreigners joined Kerala, they had finished bottom of the league but in Stack’s first season, they finished second on the table, just a point behind table toppers Mumbai City FC. They however defeated Delhi Dynamos over two legs to set up a final clash against Atletico de Kolkata – a final they eventually lost on penalties.
“I saved the first one and then we missed our last two,” says Stack. “Two central defenders put it over the bar. I did ask Copps [Coppell] to take one but was overlooked, unfortunately.
Stack retired from active football in September 2018 and is now coach at Premier League club Watford – that defeat to Atletico de Kolkata was never enough to ruin what Stack himself describes as “one of the greatest experiences I’ve had in my time in football”.
“It would have been a fairy tale [to win],” he says. “But it was about more than winning the trophy. It was about everything that came with it.
“It wasn’t until you started putting a few things down on paper on the plane on the way home that you think: ‘Blimey, what an experience.’
“What I experienced off the pitch with that group of players will always mean more to me than what happened on it.
“It surpassed all my expectations.”