"I'm saddened to leave, but I know that I have left the club in a very strong position as champions of India once again and safely through to the AFC Cup quarter-final. I wish the club all the best for the future."
Ashley Westwood's final words as manager of Bengaluru FC concluded the club’s statement announcing his departure by mutual consent following three successful seasons.
Club statements that follow managerial departures by "mutual consent" are like a sugar-coated bitter pill, stinking of hypocrisy. Nothing said in it is actually meant. But in the case of Ashley Westwood, every word in his statement holds true.
Two I-League titles, one Federation Cup and a historic AFC Cup quarter-final appearance in his three-year reign as Bengaluru FC boss is impressive, but it's just the tip of an iceberg — there is a huge amount of excellent work he has done behind the scenes at the club.
The fact that Ashley Westwood built a footballing "empire" from absolute scratch is praiseworthy in itself, but the way he leaves it is a true testament to the abilities the man possesses. While some of it is down to the support he received from the management, it's difficult to ignore how Westwood has used the support system to the best possible effect.
The failure of clubs like Bharat FC, who tried to follow the Bengaluru model might be down to several other factors, but there is little doubt that absence of an Ashley Westwood was a major one. Professionalism and commitment runs through the man. Speaking to Firstpost in an exclusive interaction, just four days before leaving the club, Westwood had discussed Bengaluru FC's brief yet glorious record and a future brimming with potential. "I am confident the club will get stronger," Westwood told Firstpost. "There is a process in place how we strengthen the team and it goes on every year. It will continue irrespective of whether I stay or leave," he added.
Strengthening is what they had to do at the start of the 2015-16 I-League campaign after being piped to the title by Mohun Bagan in the previous season. But despite being hit hard by the departure of Sean Rooney and injury to Robin Singh, there were no panic buys, no running away from the philosophy of bringing in young Indian players that Westwood so strongly advocated.
In came the unknown duo of Daniel Lahlimpuia and Malsawmzuala at the start of the season and Rooney and Robin Singh's absence wasn't really felt. Young Lahlimpuia popped up with a winner against Kitchee in Hong Kong to clinch a quarter-final berth for Bengaluru FC in the AFC Cup as history was made. Westwood's faith in youth was repaid and how!
He recalls the game with particular pride. "As a club it has always been our philosophy to give young Indian players a chance. The other day in the AFC Cup, we had Udanta and Daniel leading the line for us. Both are 19 years old. I don't think any other club in India does that," Westwood boasted. "We had Sunil playing further forward, Alwyn George, Eugenson was playing forward. So we basically had five main attackers, all Indian. That's what sets us apart from the other Indian clubs. We don't have to rely on foreigners," said the Englishman.
Westwood put this feat down to Bengaluru's recruitment and scouting process. "We scout the best talent from all over the country. We bring those players in who we believe fit into our characteristics, our way of football, that's the criteria we follow while recruiting players, and we have been able to groom them into really good players, not just for us, but also for the national team," he claimed.
Stephan Constantine clearly agrees with this theory. For the Indian squad for the Asia Cup qualifier against Laos, seven out of the 21 players are from Bengaluru FC. Moreover, most of these seven players are likely to be a part of Constantine's starting XI. And that is pretty much how it has been over the last two years.
However, the Indian champions will now go into their AFC Cup quarter-final without Ashley Westwood. There is also a possibility that a host of senior players like Sunil Chhetri and Eugenson Lyngdoh could be missing, with the Indian Super League pre-season kicking-off around the same time.
The show must go on, but how?
"We'll find a way. There have been times when we have had big players missing through injury, but the Indian players have been on international duty and we have always found a way ahead," Westwood seemed confident. "Over the past three years, we have learnt the value of a squad. We don't have the best individuals in the I-League, neither the most expensive ones, but what we have is the best team, the best work-rate and the best methods of preparation. My contract runs down in four days, but I don't bother about the unknowns. I don't speak about things that are out of my destiny. Bengaluru FC is not dependent on any individual, so I am not worried," said Westwood, possibly hinting at what lay ahead of him, but with little regret.
And why should he regret? He may be gone, but he has left behind a solid blueprint, a roadmap for Bengaluru FC to build on. He has altered the landscape of how football clubs should be run in India "I am the manager of this team. I decide when we train, how we train, how we fly, where we stay, how we eat, when we eat, what kit we wear, because I see all those as my responsibilities," Westwood said, revealing about how much attention to detail he paid.
Often clubs struggle to cope with the loss of such an influential manager, and it will be interesting to see how Bengaluru fare in the post-Westwood era. But the Manchester United youth academy graduate has given them the best possible chance of continuing the revolution forward, leaving behind a young yet strong squad that will only get better with time, in addition to a system that will ensure the best talents are blooded into superstars.
Bengaluru FC is one of the best things to happen to Indian football, and Ashley Westwood has been its architect. He will be missed, but his contribution to Indian football remains immortal.