Graham Reid felt "honoured and privileged" after landing a job many would regard as a poisoned chalice. On Monday, the Australian became India’s 26th chief coach in 25 years, with Hockey India appointing him till next year’s Tokyo Olympics. His first task, though, would be to get the team that far.
The 54-year-old Reid's pedigree is unquestionable. He is regarded as an old-school, good-humoured coach with a strong analytical mind and great man-management skills. The two-time Olympian did his coaching apprenticeship under Australian legend Ric Charlesworth as Kookaburras’ assistant for five years. After the 2014 Commonwealth Games, Reid succeeded his mentor as Australia’s chief coach till the Rio Olympics before moving on and becoming an assistant to Max Caldas in the Dutch set-up.
Charlesworth, who was linked to the India job, suggested Reid apply for it instead. Hockey India had set their eyes on him in February itself - the players were informed of the choice at the National Championships - but the bureaucratic process delayed the official appointment. It was completed on Monday, three months after the sacking of Harendra Singh.
In his wide-ranging career, Reid has worked in mining, credit insurance, oil and gas, and retail industries outside his hockey life. But few would have been as demanding and result-driven as his latest assignment. Reid inherits a side that’s struck by confidence crisis and injuries to almost half of the squad. Former Hockey India and current International Hockey Federation (FIH) president Narinder Batra, whose shadow still looms over the home federation, has also alleged "groupism and indiscipline" in the dressing room.
In an interview to PTI on Monday, Reid said his priority will be to create a ‘stable environment’ for the players and himself. For that, he will rely heavily - at least in the initial period - on Chris Ciriello, the assistant coach who was one of Reid’s key players in the Australian team. Having a known face in his corner will help Reid understand the layered relationships in the Indian dressing room, something that coaches take several months to grasp. It will also ensure continuity in playing style, considering Ciriello has been actively designing the structures and systems for the team in the last few months.
The teams that Reid has coached have a reputation of playing aggressive and high-press hockey, with an emphasis on scoring a lot of goals. Australia, for instance, would keep on pounding and suffocating their opponents to the point where they would just give up.
The obvious gulf in quality between the Indian and Australian players means that Reid will find it difficult to employ a similar strategy here. But former Australia midfielder Simon Orchard, one of the four players in Reid’s leadership group, says India could benefit from the way Reid handles the dressing room.
In the Australian set-up, Reid played the good cop to Charlesworth, who was stricter and more demanding. "Graham was much more of a friend as well as a coach. He wasn’t as demanding as Ric but wasn’t a pushover per se. They played the role well, some times Graham was the bad cop and Ric was the good one. Most often, it was the other way round," Orchard said. "Graham made sure people were okay, making sure they were mentally fine, trying to comprehend a bit more about players but also having a wealth of knowledge from his playing career."
Aussie flavour to Indian hockey
For a major part of this decade, Indian hockey has changed its colours from Australia's green-and-golden to the Dutch orange. Now, they're back to the green-and-gold again. Graham Reid's appointment as men's team chief coach means India's back-room staff has a distinctly Australian flavour. Reid's assistant, Chris Ciriello, is also from Australia along with high-performance director David John. This week, former Kookaburras striker Kieran Govers will conduct a crash-course for Indian strikers, who have been struggling to score goals. It marks a shift from the scenario a couple of years ago when the majority of India's back-room staff was Dutch. Back then, Roelant Oltmans was men's team chief coach with Hans Streeder as his assistant while Sjoerd Marijne was the women's team coach. Oltmans had also served as the high-performance director while another Dutchman, Paul van Ass, served as the men's team coach for a brief period. While John is the high-performance director now, he first came to India eight years ago as an assistant to Michael Nobbs. Australian Neil Hawgood was the women's team coach back then, with Matthew Tredea as the scientific advisor. Hockey India, whose CEO Elena Norman is also an Australian, ran out of patience with both previous set-ups. How long they stick with the latest bunch of Aussies is anyone's guess.
But Orchard added a caveat: "He is a great guy to manage a team but not very much tactically." When Reid took over from Charlesworth, he made subtle changes to Australia’s playing style but those were easily countered by their opponents at the Olympics. With no Plan B to fall back on Australia were beaten by Spain and Belgium in the group stage, and were thrashed 4-0 by the Netherlands in the quarterfinals.
"Graham probably lacked a little bit of authority in delivering his message. He is a very genuine, caring and constructive coach, but he lacks the conviction to get his message across. I think he lost the balance between giving the players the freedom and being the coach and taking charge," Orchard said. "That will be one of his main challenges with India because the Indian players, the guys I played with in HIL, are extremely talented but also need guidance."
Reid’s first assignment will be a test series in Australia before heading to the first qualifying tournament for the Tokyo Games - the World Series Finals in Bhubaneswar in June. He is expected to join the camp, which began in Bengaluru on Monday, on April 18.
But with little time between now and the Olympics, to be held in July-August 2020, Reid finds himself staring at the same question like the one he faced five years ago when he was handed over the reins of the Australian team. "He was in this position where a historically great coach was exiting, he inherited a team that was on top of the world and he had to take a decision whether to change the way we play or stick to what we know," Orchard said. "He made subtle changes and those you’re damned if you do and you are damned if you don’t."
Reid will probably not ring wholesale changes to the way India play. Orchard, though, hopes he does not shy away from getting out of his comfort zone. "If ultimately he ends up with same fate as his predecessors and get sacked, I’d rather him go his way and try something new instead of trying the same old thing."