Delhi Dynamos owner Rohan Sharma on their topsy-turvy ISL season, Super Cup hopes and his relationship with fans
Delhi Dynamos' owner Rohan Sharma discusses his first experience of working in Indian football, his club’s recovery from its lowest point and more.
After a forgettable start to the Indian Super League (ISL) season, Delhi Dynamos finished the league phase with a six-match unbeaten run. During the campaign, the Dynamos owner Rohan Sharma attracted interest for his outspoken demeanour in public, as well as his passionate support of his own team.
Before the club plays its Super Cup qualifier against Churchill Brothers on Thursday, Rohan discussed his first experience of working in Indian football, his club’s recovery from its lowest point (away defeat to ATK), why some people dislike him and his insights on a job that is “like playing Football Manager but it’s better.”
How do you reflect on Delhi Dynamos’ topsy-turvy campaign?
It was a hard season for everybody involved. I know (Matias) Mirabaje was crying at the Kolkata game (Dynamos lost 1-0). It has been an emotional season. It actually feels that way. We felt we deserved better. At the end of the day, I guess you are what your record is. So you can never argue with that. But I always felt that the team deserved to be better.
I liked the way we were playing, the way we were moving the ball. The finishing was killing us. We didn’t have a playmaker, I would say. We didn’t have a guy who could create for our team. That was the biggest thing we realised we wanted to do in the winter transfer window, a little too late. We thought (Jeroen) Lumu was more effective as a back, initially we thought he’d be the creator but it didn’t work.
(Lallianzuala) Chhangte is getting there, the emergence of Nanda (Kumar) is also very helpful. Now with (Manuel) Arana coming in, that really changed a lot for the team confidence-wise. That took Kalu (Uche) to a whole new level.
We are all happily surprised by Kalu’s turnaround in the second half of the season. His goals are insane! To be third in the Golden Boot rankings in the span of two months… you just say, “Damn! Where was this guy two months ago?” Arana knows which passes to play to Kalu. Having two experienced players with each other always works.
I’m upset that we didn’t get the wins where I wanted it to be. Seeing us play now… it’s crazy! We beat Bengaluru, which was the hardest team, with Arnab (Das Sharma) as our goalkeeper getting his first clean sheet. We smoked Mumbai (City, 5-1) and Kolkata (ATK, 4-3) was a good comeback. We didn’t give up and that makes me happy.
At least the team’s confidence was always very high. I’m happy that the Indian players did really well as well. Everybody was a little sceptical when we drafted them, they said “Who are these people?” We turned them into a little bit more than a name, more so with Vinit (Rai) and Nanda. Sajid (Dhot) as well, you know, in the last two games was very, very good. So, the kids we took on are paying off. And that’s why I’m excited for next year because our strategy was to develop the kids.
After the positive end to the league campaign, what are your expectations from the Super Cup?
People make fun of me now because I said at the beginning of the year that if we don’t win a trophy, I consider it a failure. And that is true. Nobody’s going to say, I want to set the target to be a semi-finalist. That suggests a club’s mentality is not that good. So, I’m going to say I want to lift the Cup.
If we had lost the last two games and you had asked me, I would have been saying, “Okay, we would be lucky if we were to get this or that.” But we have played some very hard teams in the last month, like Goa, and we’ve held our own.
Considering where we had been, what has really impressed me is the attitude of this team. The attitude will see them through, the kind of never-say-die belief. A lot of teams in this position would have said, “You know what, let’s just fold it in. Why do we care... We should just give up and have a nice vacation.” As a former Kerala player has said on his Instagram (chuckles).
Now, I’ve heard a lot of clubs are having a problem with their foreigners for Super Cup. Our team is the opposite, our players want to stay. Mirabaje told coach, “I don’t care, I’m staying! I want to win a trophy. I want to prove I deserve to be here.” And now with Arana, and Xabi (Irureta) in our goal, I feel very bullish about our chances.
Delhi Dynamos chose to not retain a single player from last season. Can we expect that the current squad will not undergo drastic changes?
I remember that some people were very upset that we didn’t retain any of our players from last year. I made that conscious decision to build my new core. I looked at the players we had last year and I thought, “Can I build a franchise around any of these players?”
You know, Anas (Edathodika) is a great player but, as you can see this year, he didn’t get much minutes due to injuries. Kean (Lewis), again, didn’t get much minutes at Pune (City). Souvik (Chakrabarti) is a good, solid player but can you build a franchise around him? I don’t know. I wouldn’t guess to do that.
So, then I thought who are the Indian players and I looked at the market…Chhangte, Vinit, Nanda, Pritam (Kotal), Albino (Gomes), Sukhi (Sukhdev Patil), Sajid. We have all these guys on long-term contracts, so they will be part of the core next year. Foreigners, obviously, there are some players that have caught our eye. It’s important to get some continuity. For next year, I’d like to keep some of my foreign players.
But there’s a big market out there. Every year, somebody new is the top-scorer (in the ISL). Nobody has been the top-scorer more than once. It’s harder for this league because it has not been established. You could always find somebody new for next year. Even though we have really good players, I could find somebody better. It could backfire but I don’t know. Maybe this year, you could argue that we didn’t have a good squad but it changed in the second half of the season.
So, you would like to build a core team around Indian players?
I think so. I don’t like thinking for one year. The thing I like about this club is that I can think multiple years down the road. It shouldn’t be to build for one year and win the ISL trophy. I don’t think that should be your goal. My target is for Dynamos to be that team in Asia everybody keeps talking about. People talk about Bengaluru all the time. That’s why I’m very against Bengaluru (smiles).
It’s very important we get the best talent. And I challenge every other team that we have (some of) the best Indian talent in the league. The only other team I can think of is Chennaiyin, who are doing a very good job with their talent as well. We have retained a core squad which people are very envious of, who all are under the age of 25 and they can get better if they keep playing the way they are playing.
How would you describe your relationship with players?
I’m a younger guy, so it’s hard. I try to keep my distance. Even though a part of me wants to hang out with Lumu, Kalu and all the kids all the time and say, “Guys, let’s all have a drink together!” But I try to keep myself in control and give them their space.
Also, they don’t want me to be always there. They want to have have fun without me being there and do carefree things. But it’s still very me. You see how we interact off the field, I hugged Pritam after we won that game. We still talk and message from time to time; we have dinner together so often.
I still joke around but you know, it’s a cliché, but there is a family aspect to it here. It’s a very close-knit bond. I think you could tell about the bond in the team in the last few games, we stuck together and we were all very close. But you can see they have grown. I remember Chhangte when he first came here, he was very shy and almost like a small kid. Now, he is very expressive. Nanda was also not very confident when he first came. I like seeing the evolution as well.
Was it an easy decision to stick with manager Miguel Angel Portugal when the results were bad?
Anytime you don’t get the results, any time you watch other football like the EPL, your fingers get itchy. Of course, there’s pressure when other clubs are doing it and people are asking you questions like “Why aren’t you doing it? You are the worst team in the league.”
But for me, I could see what the coach was doing. His formation and his tactics take time to understand for Indian player who aren’t used to certain things. You know, body-positioning, passing forward instead of passing back, knowing certain things to do in the system. Those are the hardest things for these players to rectify.
Every year Indian players moved to a new coach. From ISL to I-League, one coach may want you play a certain style but another coach may say “No, no. I want you to play this way.” So, there’s a lot of confusion for most of these Indian players.
That’s why it also helps getting younger players because they are less in their head about these things. They are raw material you can just build yourself. So, by the time that came out of the oven, it was a little too late. But now that everyone is adept at this system, they’re playing brilliantly. It’s not like an eighth-placed side. The way we were passing, the goals and the possession time, he’s doing a great job now. I’m glad we didn’t do it (sack the manager) and the fans also really like coach Portugal.
Do you want Dynamos to play a certain brand of football?
It’s very important that a club should have a style of play which they teach from the Under-13s all the way up to the first team. If you teach one thing at one level and another thing at another level, you’re not going to get better at one thing.
That’s why Aspire (Academy in Doha for player development) came in to mould that formation for us. So, by (the age of) 20 or 21, players know exactly how you play. It’s like putting a cog in a Swiss watch and it gets brilliant at that point. So, hats off to Sajid, Chhangte, Vinit, Nanda for immediately getting it. And getting it in a season alone is pretty good.
Clubs in Delhi have historically found it tough to find grounds for training and development. Is that a concern for the Dynamos too?
It’s a huge concern. This is my only concern, honestly. The fans will come if we start doing well and you build hype around the team. The biggest issue is the grounds. The amount of hoops it takes for us to get grounds is ridiculous. If you have a concert or a sports event, you are shifted to the side no matter what it is. So, this is my biggest headache, concern and stress.
If you have a ground, you know how much easy it is to pipe up a grassroots programme? People forget that what Delhi are trying to do is very radical. That’s why we have to work with Aspire, because we have no grounds. We have to send a kid out of the country for an education and then come back.
Even if the government tomorrow tells me, “Rohan, we will give you a ground right outside here in Dwarka. You take over it, everything is done. You get the grass coat and rest we’ll take care of”, it still won’t be the top quality in the world I can offer them. I just want a field for my first team to train. I’d like my reserves, Indian kids who don’t go to Aspire, to have a place to train. And to have an event, you know, bring kids over from communities who like football and just play there. That also makes a difference. You can have a kind of community park, that way.
(But) Nobody wants to give land, there are a lots of strings attached with the stadiums. I still want to probably switch stadiums next year because I don’t think us being at JLN (Dynamos’s current home) adds much value. It’s better off if we try to do something at Ambedkar. We are looking at another university pitch as well.
There have always been complaints about the fan experience at the JLN Stadium. What did you make of it?
I think it’s two things. Even last year, we averaged 19-20,000 people. This year was low because we started off really badly. I think, in Delhi, there are too many things to do. If your team’s not doing well, you can always go outside to the mall.
If I owned Shillong Lajong, there’s nothing else. Every Friday night, that’s our spot. I think even Mumbai has the same attendance that we have and they were doing well this year. I think, in bigger cities, we face a bigger challenge because there are too many opportunities, too many things to be distracted with.
Now that being said, the stadium obviously doesn’t always foster a good environment. Because it’s too widespread. I think if you had something like Ambedkar and you put 10,000 there, suddenly the environment changes. And that creates its own hype. JLN is a good stadium. I always bring a lot of foreigners to watch the games and they like the stadium. The setup is nice. When you walk in, it feels like a real stadium.
And the fans who do come are always very passionate. The good thing about having a small fan base is you’re more proud of that. You have a more rabid fan base because you’re always told, “You don’t have a fan base!” So, you feel marginalised. I think it’s great that are fans who almost feel marginalised because that gives them a bigger chip on the shoulder. So, when you see these banners and smoke bombs, the things they do, it’s good. And that in itself creates a lot of interest. Because it’s a small, private group but you kind of want to be a part of it.
How has your own personal relationship with the fans been?
I think we have a great relationship. At first, they were upset at the moves we made because they were so widespread, we let go of everybody. But now I think they have new fan favourites. Kalu, Chhangte, Nanda, Pritam. I think now they understand what we’re doing.
They like the fact that we are thinking of the next couple of years, that we are bringing young kids and growing them. That’s what I want, making our own heroes. It’s not just giving them heroes like (Sandesh) Jhingan, (Sunil) Chhetri or Gurpreet (Singh Sandhu). We want to give our own a bit more of a name. I think we have done that this year, at least.
But fans of other clubs don’t seem to like you very much?
Everybody doesn’t like someone who is passionate. I think it’s very easy. You know the only fans who don’t like me are Bengaluru fans. I’ve got a lot of Kerala (Blasters) fans recently, Mumbai fans. I think only Bengaluru fans are against me. I think they are the most outspoken on the internet, so it seems more like that.
As long as my fans like me, I really don’t care what other fans say. At the end of the day, I want my team to win. I’m always going to be for my team. I’m glad people are at least attached to me. I’m flattered in a way (laughs). I’ve tried to tone it down a bit now but sometimes it comes out.
Have you been surprised by the reaction your tweets generate?
It’s a small community. So, if I say something, it’s not like it’s somebody big. But I’m glad, at least, it’s somebody who cares about football who is doing it. For better or worse, at least it’s getting in the media. Maybe you don’t know who I am or you are a Bengaluru fan who calls me a clown, but at least it gets picked up by a website or some global website picks it up.
At least it’s getting spread from Delhi’s stake. If Jacqueline (Fernandes, Dynamos ambassador) does that, nobody’s buying it. They’ll say it’s all fake. If I’m doing it, at least people know it’s real. The beef I have is a real beef.
It’s part of Delhi’s culture too. Everybody in Delhi speaks their mind. Whether it is good or bad, they will speak their mind. So it’s one way in which I relate to the city a little bit. The fans defend me sometimes. They don’t tell it to my face but I always see it a little bit, "He’s a crazy guy. But he’s our crazy guy, we love him."
Was your public persona a result of conscious image-building?
Well, I didn’t do much last year. I think it’s good that Indian fans have someone to talk to. Even if you are a Bengaluru or a Delhi fan — I even get questions from Pune fans — it’s good that people know there is a vocal spokesperson. I’m not the best person from time to time but when I’m serious, at least it’s good that they feel like they are getting heard.
Someone asked Delhi, Bangalore, Mumbai, Pune on Twitter, “How come we don’t have a women’s team?” But nobody responded, I responded. I felt it’s okay if they don’t want to respond. The good thing about me is that this is my only connection to India. My family business is not based here. So, maybe they feel more pressure that if something happens, if it’s taken out of context, the company doesn’t do well or something. So, I feel less scared to speak my mind on certain things.
I think people respected my point, they know it’s not all (about) money. The engagement is good. People won’t think we are just corporate fat cats sitting in their gilded towers, saying we want to do this and that, just to save dollars and screw fans. I’m a fan of lots of sports teams and I know how it feels when your team makes a move you don’t like.
If somebody asks me which player are you going to sign or if you are going to keep the coach, I can’t always answer that. But if it’s a good question about the development of the club, development of football, I say, yeah, why not! There are always these fans who will go, “He’s wrong, he’s lying to you!” That’s part of the game. You can’t win everyone over on the internet.
How do you view the constant change in Indian football’s structure?
This is so new, it’s going to keep changing. That’s why I don’t react much to these changes. Any change for me is a positive change, even the Super Cup. And I understand the concerns everybody has. I think they are all very valid concerns. Coach (Steve) Coppell made some very good points about the organisation.
But the fact we are still having it, it’s good. Why not! There was a time when the I-League wasn’t even on TV. Now we’re in a year where every day there is some Indian football, whether the ISL, or the I-League. Let’s have more Indian football! The more exposure it is going to have, the more it is going to grow.
I’ll give you an example. Our chief sponsor, Kent RO, they are predominantly cricket guys. This year, the owner Dr Gupta came to the game and said, “This is fantastic, I love it! I want to give more of my own to football. This is more exciting.”
And I see little kids watching the game now. That makes me happy because these are the future fans of Delhi Dynamos. I love the older guys, the (Dynamost) Ultras, but at the end of the day, it’s not EPL. Those guys are my bread and butter; I’m still trying to see my best converts.
Indian football is getting better, don’t get me wrong. The ISL’s quality has improved every year I’ve watched it. I’m happy we have our own heroes now. Coro’s become a big guy, Marcelinho too. It’s all very important. And you see players in the I-League like Samuel (Lalmuanpuia), Soosairaj. Now, I wouldn’t have known who these guys were two years ago. I’m watching I-League games now because I want to see the next stars who I can grab, I know their names now. And these kids are good.
So, even though it’s rusty, I tell everybody to have patience. It’s going to take its time, people will learn, people will make mistakes. They are going to figure it out, they are going to apologise. I think having two new teams may have cost me a playoff spot but I think it’s good we’re having it. Next step, I hope it’s relegation. I say that with some hint of irony, considering we were almost bottom of the table this year. But you know, that’s what would motivate me. It would motivate different teams, differently.
The relegation-promotion, the merger, that’s for people who are getting paid more than me to decide. I can only vote on certain things. They only ask me in the end what I think. I like how we are trying to be a more equitable league.
I think we’re on the right path. At least we’re trying to do something. Whereas a couple of years ago, it didn’t feel like anything was happening. Now, for better or worse, whether you agree with Bollywood stars coming in — I know, everybody says the same thing to me too — but at least it creates exposure for Indian football. At the end of the day, that’s what we want – people to become fans of Indian football.
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