John Gregory enjoys an Indian summer after Chennaiyin win ISL title

Author: DILEEP PREMACHANDRANTue, 2018-03-20 03:08ID: 1521494519219348800BANGALORE: The two headers with which Mailson, a journeyman Brazilian center-back, transformed the 2018 Indian Super League (ISL) final, would have done the late, great John Charles proud — deftly and powerfully glanced into the corner of the net.
John Charles Gregory, the Chennaiyin FC coach, is only 63 and too young to recall his namesake’s glory years with Leeds United and Juventus, but there was undoubtedly a touch of the British about the manner in which his side subdued table-topping Bengaluru FC on their home turf.
In front of 25,753 fans, Chennaiyin went a goal behind in the eighth minute — scored by Sunil Chhetri, the finest Indian footballer of his generation — but the manner in which they regrouped and then proceeded to boss a game they won 3-2 brought back memories of Gregory’s best years as a manager.
He had learned from one of the best as a midfielder with Queens Park Rangers. In 1982, when still in the old second division, QPR — managed by Terry Venables, who as national team manager would give English football its most memorable summer since 1966 — reached the FA Cup final, losing to Tottenham Hotspur in a replay. The next season, with Gregory as one of the lynchpins, QPR won promotion. In their first season back in the top flight, they finished fifth and won as many games (22) as a legendary Liverpool side that won a treble of league, League Cup and European Cup.
Gregory’s first big break as a manager came in 1998, when he was given the Aston Villa job. At a club where he had spent two successful years as a player, Gregory and his team hit the ground running, winning eight games in a 12-game unbeaten start to the season. The ISL season lasted four months from kick-off to final whistle. Had that been the case in England, Gregory would have become the first English manager to win a Premier League title.
Heading into the New Year in 1999, Villa sat on top of the table with 39 points from 20 games. But as winter took hold, and the paucity of their resources began to tell, they slipped down the table, finishing with 55 points in sixth place. The next season, Gregory took them to the FA Cup final — but a David James blooper, capitalized on by Chelsea’s Roberto di Matteo, meant that there would be only heartache.
Gregory’s career trajectory has been all downhill since, taking in ill-fated stints at Derby County and QPR, two of his former clubs, and spells in Israel and Kazakhstan. His last job in England was with Crawley Town in League One, and while contemporaries like Sam Allardyce have bounced from job to job, Gregory is largely a forgotten man.
They will not forget him in Chennai though. Appointed in 2017 to succeed Marco Materazzi, his team was built around experienced but little-known foreign players and promising Indian talent. Their composure was the key in the final, as was the game plan Gregory conceived. In the regular season, when Bengaluru won 13 of their 18 games, Chennaiyin had won on their rival’s turf largely by disrupting the passing game favored by Albert Roca, the coach who was once Frank Rijkaard’s assistant at Barcelona.
In the final, Roca opted for a 3-5-2, with Eric Paartalu, the physically imposing Estonian-Australian, withdrawn into a center-back role. When Dimas Delgado, the Spaniard who had pulled the midfield strings all season, went off injured just seconds before Chennaiyin took the lead, any semblance of control disappeared.
Bengaluru had lots of the ball in the second half, but it was Chennaiyin, with Gregory constantly shouting instructions from the sideline, who were far more effective with it. That authority culminated in a wonderful third goal, curled in beautifully by Raphael Agusto, once a youth prospect with Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro.
Bengaluru did not take the defeat well. The stands were largely empty within minutes, and Roca was moved to say: “Everybody knows we finished first, eight points above Chennaiyin. The players did an incredible job. I am sad for them and the fans. But that’s football.”
Gurpreet Sandhu, his goalkeeper, went a step further. “We are the champions because we won the league stage,” he said petulantly.
Gregory, who once trudged up the old steps at Wembley to collect a loser’s medal, was having none of it. “I was honestly disappointed to hear these words,” he said. “We won the cup is what I know.”
They certainly did. And while it does not make up for those long-ago disappointments with Villa, it is something for the mantelpiece.
Main category: SportsTags: footballsoccerIndian Super LeagueIndiaAsiarelated_nodes: One game stands between Bengaluru FC and fairytale ISL titleBengaluru FC lead the way in India’s disjointed, ‘farcical’ league system

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