Head Coach Des Buckingham Dissects Mumbai City FC’s Record-breaking ISL Season

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The Des Buckingham era began at Mumbai City FC in 2021. Finishing fifth in the league, the English manager didn’t have the desired start at the club backed by Manchester City owners City Football Group (CFG). This especially compared to the 2020-21 season where they won the League Winner’s Shield and the Indian Super League (ISL) trophy.

Cut to February 2023, and Mumbai have not only lifted the League Winner’s Shield but their rampaging run has forced the challengers to fight for the second position and whatever else is left in the league at best. The last season now seems like a distant memory.

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With the longest unbeaten streak of 18 games, the most goals in a single season, and the most points record, Mumbai became the quickest League Shield winners with two games left. All this was achieved while playing an attacking brand of football based on a potent cocktail of proven overseas talent and ever-improving Indian players.

The turnaround began in April last year when Mumbai became the first Indian side to win an Asian Champions League match. Later the club bought proven ISL overseas stars in Greg Stewart and Jorge Pereyra Díaz, but the core of the team remained largely the same.

In a chat with Firstpost, Buckingham, who won the A-League in 2021 with CFG-owned Melbourne City as an assistant coach, reveals what led to the incredible turnaround in the fortunes, managing the foreign players, getting the best out of the Indian players, and why there’s more to come from Mumbai City FC.

Excerpts from the interview:

From finishing fifth the previous season to winning the ISL League Winner’s Shield and that also in such a comprehensive manner. We know how the team played and the incredible stats, but can you speak about the backroom work that led to this turnaround?

It’s probably two or three key things. We brought a lot of things into the club last year and in a bubble, it’s difficult to implement everything you like, but now the players get all the things that we had at Melbourne. The reason I mention that is people only see what happens on TV, how we play, but everything that allows those players to perform to the highest ability, you know, the training, and how we monitor, the work that they do off the field to try and stay fit and healthy to allow us to keep picking them. The development opportunity of how we work with them one-on-one, how we work with the group, all of that work are in place.

It has been in place for 12 months now and I believe with time we are getting to see the benefits of that work as well as some of the changes we made, to the two personnel (foreign players) in the team. That allows us to play the way we want now. I think those have been the two or three biggest things.

Talking about the foreign players. Newcomers Greg Stewart and Jorge Pereyra Diaz have fit in excellently but when you have so many good foreign players, it must be tough to manage them. What’s your line of communication?

I know there’s a lot of talk about the players that we brought in, but we only made four changes to our team from last season and that is the four foreign players. A lot of talk is around that and it’s easy to say that is the reason for the change. That obviously is part of the reason.

But when I look at our team, I think a lot of attention is being taken away from the young Indian players certainly who are coming in and holding onto their roles. For example, young Phurba (Lachenpa) in goal, it’s his first breakout season. Mehtab (Singh) has really come through. Apuia (Lalengmawia Ralte) was good obviously and has now developed his game. Vignesh (Dakshinamurthy) at left-back, and Sanjeev (Stalin) we brought in. I could go on, Vikram (Singh), Gurkirat (Singh).

Those players were largely here last season, so when I look at the teams that we have fielded this season compared to last, there’s only generally been two different players on the field. In terms of how we manage them — I spoke to all six foreign players when we started the season. Because not only do we try to recruit good players, we try to recruit good people and what I mean by that is when you recruit good people and you are honest with them and they are clear on how they fit into the plan and what that looks like. They don’t necessarily agree with you all the time but I think when you explain the reasons and then as the season progress, when you get results because of those reasons, you gain the trust of those people.

If you can sit and talk to good people, good professionals who are good players and they can understand the rationale behind what you are doing and why you are doing it but more importantly where they fit within that I believe is the big reason why we have seen the six foreigners especially but overall the whole group contributes towards the success we had.

Indian talent has flourished under you at the club. Is there a different approach towards Indian players in comparison to foreign players?

It’s exactly the same. To give you an example, we sit with Vikram and go through his training and go through the games that he played and look at this development. What is there for him to work on and how we can help him do that. We will review that in training and we will review that in the game. That process with Vikram is exactly like what we did with (Ahmed) Jahouh two weeks back.

Sometimes people think because they are foreign players that work doesn’t need to happen or doesn’t happen but the reality is the 34 or 35 years old, players that we have are very keen to learn and better themselves and if you can do that, they are as important as young players. When I look back, I am very happy with how we have managed the whole squad, but the approach is very similar whether it’s the youngest boy, an 18-year-old that we have here or it’s the oldest player we have in Mourtada Fall. There are slight differences but I would like to think 80-90 % of what we do is very consistent across the whole spectrum.

Talking about your off-the-field personality. How are you away from the game? Are you a calm person or an aggressive one naturally and what elements from your life have you brought into your management?

I would like to think I am relatively calm off the field. I try to gain as much information as possible to help me make well-informed decisions and not in-the-moment decisions where emotions can drive them. But my background largely to start with was in teaching, so a lot of my coaching revolves around teaching and how people can learn the best way. I think that has been very helpful in getting my message across to the players, especially with the young players. Because if I can’t get the players to relate to what I see in my head, it doesn’t matter.

There’s still a fair distance to go for this season with the ISL semis, Super Cup, and AFC Champions League spot matches to come. How are you tackling any possible complacencies that may creep in?

We are a club that wants to be successful. Success could mean different things to different people. For us firstly it was about trying to build a squad that can play a certain style of football and we believe very strongly that that certain style of football could get you results in this league that we saw this season. When I look back at the last 10 months, we won matches in the Champions League and reached the Durand Cup final and now we have won the League Winner’s Shield. It has been steady progress but we have got a long way to go, there’s a lot that we want to do at the club and that’s the reason I have chosen to stay for two more years (till 2025).

In the short term, we obviously know we have the ISL semi-finals coming up to try and achieve a little more and get better. We know there are Super Cup and Champions League playoffs. In terms of keeping these players grounded, we know we have achieved may be one of the things we believed we can. We have managed to achieve that now but there’s no need for us to refocus because we know there are at least three other things that we have in our sight before the end of this season. If we don’t approach them the right way, then we don’t want this to be the end of what has been a very promising 10 months. It’s now about how far can we go and how to put ourselves in the best position to do that.

Talking about the City Football Group. How has it been working with them? Can you talk about your support staff and the help the group provides?

It’s coming to the end of my third year of working with CFG. I am still a young coach at 38 despite this being the 22nd season of my coaching, which sounds pretty crazy when you say it like that. What I really like is being in an environment where you are trusted because of the work you do and people see how you do it, but it’s not always about what I do. I am a strong believer that you can far further if you involve the others around, the players, and the staff.

If you find the right people who are good at what they do and you allow them to do it while being well aware of what you want to achieve and how you want to do it, it will work. The group is very clear on the style of football we want to play, the club, players, and staff know what it looks like and they all know how they can contribute towards that. The group’s vision is closely aligned with and is the club’s vision which is closely aligned with my coaching. All three are very important if you want to try and continue that success.

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