It's time to hope again.
It's that time of the year again when Indian hockey has announced a new coach " Australia's much-decorated player and trainer, Graham Reid. Yet, so much of Reid's appointment feels like a film caught on a rewind button. In the general chaos of Indian hockey where coaches change like seasons, many in the camp at Bengaluru will be hoping that Reid sustains. For players and fans, it was an appointment they wished would happen. Not only because of what Reid brings in as a former player and coach but that in an Indian set-up and structure, Reid's style of play would ensure continuity.
Looking at numbers, in terms of coaches appointed in the last decade, Graham comes in at No.13. Now that list has a few interim coaches, the in-betweens too. The big names were Jose Brasa, at the start of the decade and then Roelant Oltmans, Terry Walsh, Paul van Ass before finishing off 2018 with Harendra Singh. To give the decade that sharp edge and an Olympic spot in Tokyo and aspiring for a podium finish, Graham Reid's appointment does make you believe the right card had been picked.
At the recently concluded Azlan Shah, India played with an interim coach in the form of the High-Performance Director David John. There were times when the team peaked in certain moments of the league matches but in that final, a win that could have started off the year well, they faltered. Not because they didn't know what to do. But because they didn't know when and how to do it. Korea, with a team that should have been in an old-age home, saw us off quarter by quarter. They held their luck, showed resilience and understood our mind-set to finally overcome us in the shoot-out. Into that scenario steps in Graham Reid. Into a team of highly skilled players but whose minds are not their own. The Indian team has seen so many coaches that words like style, stability, continuity, durability don't mean a thing. In a way, it's also got easier to blame the coaches and not take responsibility as a team; the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and the World Cup being key examples.
In an interview to PTI, Graham Reid spoke about stability. "What I want is a stable environment for me as well as the players," Reid said.
"I think Graham ticks all the boxes," says Ric Charlesworth, himself an Aussie legend as player and coach. Graham Reid was Ric's assistant coach when Australia won the 2014 World Cup. "India decided for a change and they needed someone experienced. I feel Reid offers all that. He is assertive, knows what's happening internationally and is very much in touch."
It's an important year for Indian hockey. The team needs to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Not getting there would be a huge setback. The pressure is equally on the players as it will be on the coach. Last year, 2018, was to be the big year for Indian hockey. But failures at the Asian Games and then the World Cup stalled a lot of plans. Qualifying directly would have given time to prepare. Now the team not only needs to qualify from their group (Hockey Series Finals, Bhubaneswar) but also wait for the opponent who they take on in a play-off. It's not easy.
"He will do the job. He has the capability. He has delivered. He did slip up at Rio. But because he is good, the Dutch picked him up. He is very competent and understands the requirements of the job. He would be on the top of my list," says Ric.
India is a challenge. Not only because of the insecurity of the job. But that every player comes in with a varied skill set and a playing pattern that needs to be brought to parity with the existing team players and the new coach's philosophy. And then the change in play-patterns and different views of the coaches doesn't make it easy. Pessimism, doubts, lack of confidence and a certain bitterness in the system surrounds the players. A present player who didn't want to be named said, "It's okay for the coaches as they will change to a different team. But we also yearn for continuity. Does anyone realise how tough it is to work with a new coach every year? It's a matter of trust."
Indian hockey will be looking towards building up that trust in its team through Graham Reid. Ric believes that is one of the bigger challenges facing Reid. "It's the insecurity that bothers the professional coaches. He needs a good programme that will help him with the players and bring them under one roof. And Hockey India should give him the resources to achieve whatever has been spelt out."
Ric thinks the players will have confidence in Reid. "They know who he is and once they interact with him, the confidence in his ability will show."
The former Australian World Cup-winning player and coach believes Reid is a good fit for Indian hockey. "The biggest challenge, however, will be the expectations from India. It's always very high. He has the experience of training teams for the World Cup and the Olympic Games. The road to Tokyo, despite India not playing the Pro League will not be that tough."
Ric said Reid had spoken to him about one day coaching India. "It was a while ago probably at the World Cup, I don't remember. But I did tell him to go for it."
At the recently concluded Azlan Shah, Japanese coach Siegfried Aikman compared the frequent change of coaches to: "It's a merry go round. No? The King is dead. Long live the King. How do you deal with this? Every time you restart. It makes it more and more difficult."
At the same time, Aikman likens Indian hockey to Barcelona and Real Madrid. "Every coach wants a shot at Barcelona and Real Madrid. Every coach believes they will do it. They know India's skill. Some of the world's most talented players are here. And every coach coming in, believes he won't fail. Each of us believe we won't be fired."
Reid in his interview to PTI said, "When every coach starts his career, he has that secret desire to coach India someday and I am no exception. I love the way India play."
It's a good start point for Reid. He has to be that binding force for a team that has taken more knocks than medals. Swallowed more insults than received accolades. Graham Reid, the player and coach would, however, know winning would always be the perfect balm for years of hurt and under-achievement.