ISL was one of the greatest experiences I've had in my time, says former Blasters goalkeeper Stack

Sajith B Warrier

Bengaluru, October 10: The Indian Super League (ISL), which is into its fifth season, has succeeded in breaking cultural barriers and building new bonds from its inception in 2014 and former Kerala Blasters goalkeeper Graham Stack would be the first one to admit that.

Stack, who was the understudy to Jens Lehmann during Arsenal's 'invincible' run, calls his 2016-17 stint with Blasters as "one of the greatest experiences I've had in my time in football".

That was the year in which Blasters went on reach the final of the tournament for the second time in three years - where they lost to their nemesis - ATK - on penalties.

"It would have been a fairy tale (to win)," Stack was quoted as saying in an interview with blog.betway.com.

READ THE ORIGINAL INTERVIEW HERE

"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." Stack waxed eloquent about his ISL experience.

The Englishman joined ISL thanks to Steve Coppell, who was his manager at Reading a decade ago, when they won the Championship with a record 106 points.

Stack was done with his contract with Barnet when Coppell rang him up.

"It wasn't life-changing money, by any means," recalls 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."

But it was not an easy decision though as he had to leave his wife and four children behind.

"That was definitely the toughest challenge," Stack admitted.

"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."

The ISL rules at the time stipulated that that all the clubs must include between eight to 10 foreign players, plus one marquee player.

So Stack never felt alone, as also on board in ISL were his friends Michael Chopra and Aaron Hughes.

It did not take Stack so much time to bond with the local players and he instantly struck a chord in a multicultural dressing room.

"We had a real mix of different backgrounds, footballing experiences, cultures, religions," Stack said. "It was a beautiful blend.

"We built morale on the training ground, with old vs young games, internationals vs non-internationals, foreigners vs Indians.

"Sometimes, along with myself, Chopra and Hughes, we would go out and have a few drinks along with the local boys. We all got on great."

Later Stack assumed the role of a mentor at Blasters.

"I think they looked to us for a bit of guidance. They were always intrigued and would have 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."

Stack retired a year later to take up the role as Head of Goalkeeping Academy at Premier League club Watford.

But he still relishes the ISL experience, especially the Blasters' home ties at Kochi's Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium.

"We had 80,000 people and, at times, you'd think the stadium was just going to collapse. I've never experienced anything like it, and I never will," Stack concluded.

(The story was done with a special arrangement from blog.betway.com).

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