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Graham Stack’s Indian Super League Adventure

The ex-Arsenal goalkeeper spoke to Betway Insider and revealed what it was like to leave the lower leagues behind to take up an offer of playing for one of Asia’s most popular clubs.

Graham Stack was having a kick around in the garden with his kids when the phone rang. On the other end was Steve Coppell, his manager at Reading 10 years earlier when they won the Championship title with a record 106 points.

Coppell had just taken charge of the Kerala Blasters and wanted to know if his former goalkeeper fancied joining him as a player-coach.

It was the summer of 2016, and Stack was still waiting for the offer of a new contract from Barnet, where he’d spent the previous four years flitting between the Conference and the Football League.

Speaking to Betway, Stack explained the decision-making process that saw him take the plunge and move a few thousand miles across the globe.

“It wasn’t life-changing money, by any means. It was a four-month contract that probably generated an 18-month salary for me over here.

“But the chance to embrace a new culture, a new environment, on the other side of the world, I just thought: ‘Wow, what a fantastic opportunity.”

It was one he couldn’t turn down, even though it meant leaving his wife Natalie and four children – Leila, Grace, George and Alfie – behind.

“That was definitely the toughest challenge. If you’re getting paid hundreds of thousands of pounds, it becomes a very easy decision.

“But when you’re not, and you’re putting everything on hold back here – missing out on your son’s first day at school, their first Sunday league match, birthdays, christenings, stuff like that – it’s not an easy decision to make.

“There’s only so much Facetime and Skype and whatever else you can do.”

Stack, though, felt compelled to go. He was not the only one.

Indian Super League rules at the time dictated that all eight clubs must include between eight and 10 foreign players in their squads, plus one marquee player boasting global appeal.

Speaking on the future of ISL and its growth, Stack seemed hopeful but maintained that nurturing a league comes down to more than just investment and big-name talent.

“I think it needs a little bit more exposure in this part of the world. It will struggle as the Chinese league has. You can throw millions and millions at it but it doesn’t necessarily mean the league is going to become a success if you’re going to sign a load of marquee players.

“The quality of football has to be something that people want to watch. There has to be good quality players on show. The idea of cutting the foreign players will restrict the amount of interest that they’re going to get in this part of the world.”

Kerala Blasters – who at the time were owned by Indian cricket legend and all-time top Test run-scorer Sachin Tendulkar – plumped for Aaron Hughes, a veteran of over 450 Premier League appearances with Fulham, Aston Villa and Newcastle.

Joining him and Stack were journeyman striker Michael Chopra, Antonio German – with 20 Football League starts to his name during spells at seven different clubs – and seven more faces from Spain, France, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Chad.

Stack’s take on the quota system is one that understands that there is room for improvement, one that would allow for the homegrown talent to grow alongside the foreign experience in a manner that will only benefit the league in the long-run.

“I do believe that it’s a very good rule if you’re going to try and bring on and develop young, Indian talent. They have to play, they’ve got to play.

But I think they’ve gone too far now by restricting it too much. They’re going to lose a lot of experience, and know-how and knowledge, and I think a lot of that is what helped the Indian players develop – not just through coaching but through working with good players.

“I don’t know how that will affect the quality of the league, because obviously you are definitely going to be losing out on some quality by not bringing in experience.

Combined with the contingent of homegrown players, Stack suddenly formed part of a dressing room that was more multicultural than the majority of those in Europe’s major leagues.

It didn’t take long, though, for them to develop a rapport.

“We had a real mix of different backgrounds, footballing experiences, cultures, religions. It was a beautiful blend.

“We built morale on the training ground, with old v young games, internationals v non-internationals, foreigners v Indians.

“There were a few Indian leaders. A boy called Gurwinder Singh, who has captained India, and a boy called Mehtab Hossain, from Calcutta, who was also an Indian international.

“There was also a couple of boys from Punjab who liked a drop of whiskey.

“Sometimes, the Punjabi lads and a few of the other boys, along with myself, obviously, and Chops [Chopra] and Hughesy [Hughes], we’d go out and have a few drinks. We all got on great.”

Having begun his career at Arsenal in 2003, where he served as Jens Lehmann’s No. 2 during their Invincibles season, Stack assumed a mentoring role towards his Indian teammates.

“I think they looked to us for a bit of guidance. They were always intrigued and would want answers for questions, like what we were eating, what we were doing in the gym, why did we have a foam roller?

“At times, they were flabbergasted by the work we used to do, and I think we had to change their mentality.”

Not that they weren’t without talent.

“Individually, there were some very good Indian players over there.

“There were certainly a couple in my team that would have been able to come over here and play in the Championship.

“But then there were others that would find it difficult to get into a League Two side.”

Stack, who spent three years at Hibernian between 2009 and 2012, chuckles. “It’s a little bit like the Scottish league, in that sense.”

Yet while he and the other imports could offer plenty of guidance off the pitch, their influence on it was limited by only ever being allowed to have six foreigners on the field at any one time.

“There was a game where I came off, when we were losing to Calcutta 1-0, because we’ve got a foreigner in goal and we need to get our Haitian international centre-forward on the pitch to try and get us back in it.

“For the manager, it’s a bit of a conundrum, as your best XI doesn’t necessarily start.”

With the regular season running between October and December, Stack, who lived in a local hotel, had a schedule akin to that of a Champions League player – travelling a total of over 6,000 miles via numerous connecting flights.

But it was at home in the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium where the Blasters really excelled, taking 16 points from a possible 21 and conceding just four goals.

“We had 80,000 people and, at times, you’d think the stadium was just going to collapse. I’ve never experienced anything like it, and I never will.

“People couldn’t get in. The streets were 50 deep at times on the pavements with people spilling over onto the road.

“Real fanatics, but that was Kerala. Believe it or not, football is their primary sport, not cricket. That’s saying something.”

Having been bottom of the table the year before, the Blasters finished second in the league, one point behind Mumbai City. They then beat Delhi Dynamos over two legs in the playoffs to set up a repeat of the 2014 final against Atletico de Kolkata.

After going ahead in the first half, the Blasters conceded just before the break before eventually losing on penalties.

“I saved the first one and then we missed our last two. Two central defenders put it over the bar. I did ask Copps [Coppell] to take one but was overlooked, unfortunately.

“There’s no doubt I’d have stuck it away. The goalie was about 5ft 8in and I just felt you had to hit the target to have a very good chance of scoring.”

But for Stack – who retired in September 2018 to take up a coaching role at Premier League club Watford –  that defeat could never spoil what he describes as “one of the greatest experiences I’ve had in my time in football”.

“It would have been a fairy tale [to win]. But it was about more than winning the trophy. It was about everything that came with it.

“It wasn’t until you started putting a few things down on paper on the plane on the way home that you think: ‘Blimey, what an experience.’

“What I experienced off the pitch with that group of players will always mean more to me than what happened on it.

“It surpassed all my expectations.”

As for his own future, Stack describes his retirement as bittersweet but takes a lot of comfort in the security his new role brings his family.

“It was an opportunity I didn’t really want to pass up. It’s come at a good time – I’m out of contract in the summer and I’m 37 next week. How long am I going to be able to keep churning out one season after another?

“And then, before you know it, you maybe get a little niggle and miss a few months. You’re not as desirable once you get to 37, 38. The salaries start to come down.

“I don’t want to end up scratching around for a club and not being paid over the summer, as has happened before. It’s a real nightmare.

“I’ll miss it, big time, but I think there comes a time where you’ve just got to do what’s right. There’s more stability now for the family. I thought it was the right time to make that move over to the other side.”

As for whether he plans on returning to India for another at it next year, he has decided to leave it at that, citing club commitments.

I did have the opportunity to go back in the summer with Chennai. John Gregory offered me a contract, but I still had a year to go on my Eastleigh contract.

“But with the season now being 10 months, it wasn’t something I could consider, really, because it was too long. I would have loved my children to have seen parts of India because it is such a wonderful, interesting place to be.”

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