Neil Warnock and the Tinkitam Express
For his latest historical article Rob Doolan takes us to Gigg Lane, Lancashire. And the foothills of the Himalayas, naturally…
Indian football is back in the headlines at the moment for the first time in years, the well-backed but turbulent Premier League Soccer being the latest venture in the quest to gain the game a foothold in the cricket-obsessed subcontinent. Indeed, the success of cricket’s IPL has heavily influenced the PLS format, the most obvious example being the auction where ‘icon players’ — veteran stars of the recent past lured by the promise of one last payday — were sold off to the franchise clubs involved (all of which are rather unromantically run by large companies). Hernan Crespo, Fabio Cannavaro, Robert Pires and Robbie Fowler are among those who went under the hammer. Many are sceptical about the potential of PLS to finally truly launch the Indian game as a footballing force, and the postponement of the league’s big kick off due to a lack of venues hardly bodes well. But at least people are talking about the game in India again.
Rewind to 1999 however, and the buzz in Indian football was being created not by ageing imports but rather a talented young export, as 23-year-old striker Baichung Bhutia became the first player from the subcontinent to sign for a European club. The youngest player ever to both captain and score for India, he had been linked to a number of high-profile clubs. Yet after trials at Aston Villa, Fulham and West Brom, it would be third-tier Bury for whom the man dubbed “God’s gift to Indian football” put pen to paper to seal that history-making move.
Hopes were high for the speedy, 5’8″ Bhutia, especially when he hit a hat trick while on trial at Gigg Lane. There was considerable hype surrounding his arrival, with talk of Bury shirts selling strongly in India and comparisons being drawn with Michael Owen, with England still in the post-France ’98 grip of Owenmania at the time. Bury manager Neil Warnock equally unhelpfully invoked the name of Gary Lineker as the striker whom Bhutia reminded him of, praising his ability to “come to life in the six-yard box”. The Kick It Out campaign hailed him as a great role model for Bury’s large Asian community, and Bhutia was mobbed and spent hours signing autographs after skippering the Indian national side in a friendly against Fulham at Craven Cottage.
Yet there were problems from the outset. He was initially denied a work permit, which delayed his arrival by weeks and gave him less time to settle in at his new club. By his own admission, this left the star “always playing catch up”, and his tenure at Gigg Lane was marred by fitness and injury problems, as well as a struggle with the massive culture shock. The ‘Tinkitam Express’ was used to playing in front of huge crowds in Bengal, India’s footballing heartland (and the home of the new PLS concept), where fiercely contested derbies between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan routinely drew attendances of over 70,000.
Yet he found the facilities at Bury, who were only drawing crowds of around 5,000 to Gigg Lane, far superior. Indian football had none of the advantages or facilities that were commonplace even in the lower divisions of English football. Bhutia found it hard to adapt, telling The Times of India: “You cannot compare the fitness of Indian and the British players. The pre-season training is very technical and also very physical. We in India lack technical training. It’s just running for hours in the heat.”
The tactical focus of the English game compared to Indian football proved another eye-opener for the captain of India: “[At home] if there is a game at 3 o’clock, we sit with the coach just half an hour earlier and discuss things without any idea of what game you are going to play. Whereas in England you know three days before which team you are going to play with, study their system/style and train on that.” Sports science was similarly less well-developed back home, and alone in a foreign land, and at first Bhutia would obliviously subsist on fast food.
Bhutia wasn’t helped by the exit of Warnock just two months after the striker’s arrival. It had been a short but unhappy stay at Bury for the Yorkshireman, who later claimed that his 18 months there “felt like 18 years”, lamenting that the Shakers were the one team in his managerial career who he’d left in a worse position than when he arrived. It was on his watch that the club was relegated from the Championship, and the fans never truly took to him.
His departure to take the helm at boyhood club Sheffield United was a real blow for Bhutia, however. Warnock and his staff were well aware of the player’s need to acclimatise, putting him on a strict training and dietary regime. They were confident their patience would pay off, with Warnock declaring: “Give him three to six months and watch him go”. But that went out of the window when David Preece was appointed. “Warnock and his coaches were the only ones who knew where I was in terms of fitness and were working on a schedule accordingly,” Bhutia would recall. “Suddenly there was a new coaching staff who weren’t aware where I stood”. With Preece something of a tyro and Bury in a relegation battle, the new man needed results quickly and did not feel he had the time to spend on Bhutia’s development.
Soon after, the injuries began to pile up. A bad knee hampered him throughout his time in Greater Manchester, limiting him to just 26 starts in two and a half years. Though he took time to find his feet, and only managed three goals, he did show flashes of his undoubted talent. His goal against Chesterfield was a fine finish, and by the start of his final season had developed a promising partnership with Jon Newby, his pace and skill coming to the fore in a withdrawn striking role. Just as it seemed as if he was coming into his own however, the ‘Sikkimese sniper’ suffered a recurrence of the knee problem that would effectively end his Shakers’ career. It says much for his improvement by this point that the previously sceptical Preece was distraught about Bhutia’s injury, describing it as a “massive blow” for Bury and that the striker was to be a big part of his plans for the season.
Bury were relegated to the basement at the end of the 2001/02 season, and, crippled by financial problems, were forced to call in the administrators. Bhutia was a victim of the player cull that followed and returned to India, and an adventure that began with great fanfare fizzled into disappointment.
However, Bhutia has bounced back and has had a massive influence on football in his homeland. Not only did he repeat the success he’d enjoyed prior to leaving the subcontinent, but he has spent the decade since leaving Greater Manchester campaigning for and instituting change in Indian football. Always quick to highlight how much he learned from his time at Bury, he has been outspoken in calling for an overhaul in the Indian game’s infrastructure, as well as for the introduction of better sports science and more qualified physiotherapists.
In 2006 he established the FPAI, a players’ association based on the English PFA, which for the first time offers Indian footballers guidance and support on issues like wages and pensions. Having long bemoaned the lack of youth development in Indian football, Bhutia has set up a number of soccer schools in partnership with former Manchester United assistant manager Carlos Queiroz, and helps run his own team, United Sikkim, which gives the best academy graduates their share of first team professional action.
To this day, Bhutia is a huge star in India, his stock rising further when he won India’s version of Strictly Come Dancing. Now 35, he bowed out of international football in January this year with a glitzy farewell game between India and a strong Bayern Munich side.
Opinion in India is divided as to whether PLS will prove a blessing or a curse, with Bhutia himself ambivalent. Either way, much of the progress made in Indian football in recent years can be traced back to Baichung Bhutia and his experiences at Gigg Lane. Bury’s loss has been Indian football’s gain.
Also by Rob Doolan