As the coach of Amsterdam Hockey Club, Netherlands’ oldest and one of the most successful sides, Graham Reid followed a simple mantra. “He said, ‘the team who dared to lose would win’,” Billy Bakker, who captains Amsterdam and the Dutch national team, says. “He did not want you to be afraid.”
Within days of taking charge of the Indian set-up last May, the 55-year-old Australian laid down a similar challenge. Playing fearlessly does not come naturally to the Manpreet Singh-led side that has often been accused of being mentally fragile. But Reid, as his ex-colleagues from the Australian and Dutch sides would testify, is never afraid of ‘challenging the players and making the comfortable uncomfortable.’
In an Olympic year, Pro League matches have a feel of glorified exhibition games. But the twin ties against the Netherlands in Bhubaneswar last weekend, which the hosts won 5-2 and 3-1 via a shootout (after finishing 3-3 in normal time), offered a glimpse into what India under Reid might look like.
India were aggressive in their approach, relentless in the way they rushed the Dutch players, playing more forward passes rather than sideways or backwards, threw in a lot of tackles and took risks, which left them vulnerable at the back many times but something that Reid – a man so obsessed with goal-scoring that he isn’t afraid of conceding a few – did not seem to be too concerned about that.
“Of course, I don’t like taking ridiculous risks. I’ve spent too long with Ric Charlesworth to go out and play reckless hockey. But I don’t believe in things like protecting a lead,” Reid, who won silver at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, says.
It was Charlesworth, the legendary Australian, who recommended Reid for the India job after Harendra Singh was sacked last January. Reid had been an integral part of Charlesworth’s coaching staff at Australia and was one of the architects of their back-to-back World Cup wins in 2010 and 2014.
Before he accepted Hockey India’s offer, Reid took Charlesworth’s advice. “He told me, ‘you are a good match with the Indian mentality’,” Reid says. Charlesworth meant that from a couple of points of view: Reid’s coaching philosophy as well as his man-management skills.
For the teams he coached – be it Dutch giants Amsterdam or world-beaters Australia or as Max Caldas’ right-hand man at the Netherlands – it was paramount that they played aggressive and high-press hockey. Scoring a goal and protecting that lead, like the Germans or Argentines do, was not his thing. That’s how Indians played their hockey too, but a little less clinically than they wished to.
“He is funny, warm, cheerful… also relentless in what he demands from the players. He makes the comfortable uncomfortable; challenges them… there are no excuses when you are with Graham,” Caldas, who was assisted by Reid in plotting India’s exit from the 2018 World Cup and leading Netherlands to a runner-up finish, says.
‘More of a friend’
At Australia, Reid was seen as ‘much more of a friend’, according to Simon Orchard, who was one of the four players in Reid’s leadership group. “Graham made sure people were okay, making sure they were mentally fine, trying to comprehend a bit more about players but also having a wealth of knowledge from his playing career.”
Orchard was convinced India could benefit from the way Reid handles the dressing room. And even though these are still early days, his prediction seems to be coming good so far. Forwards Mandeep Singh and Lalit Upadhyay said Reid’s style was more ‘friendly and he gave them a lot of freedom.’ “Whenever there has been a problem, he has spoken to us personally. He encourages us to share our problems, so the mood in the dressing room has lightened a bit,” Mandeep says.
To some, Reid’s style and manner are similar to that of former India coach Jose Brasa, who was respected by most players and is regarded to have had a big impact on Indian hockey during his tenure. Like Brasa, Reid has gone back to the basics with the players, but instead of focusing on things like trapping, the Australian’s agenda is to unclutter India’s playing style. “Look up while receiving the ball, scan the pitch, search for the nearest option to pass the ball, and pass it forward,” Rupinderpal Singh summarises Reid’s instructions to the players.
These might sound like obvious things to do but India, in the past, have struggled to execute the simple and obvious. The coaches, too, weren’t exactly as attack-minded as Reid, according to Rupinderpal. “We played safe. Our first instinct was to pass backwards or sideways. Under Graham, our first option is to go forward,” the drag-flicker adds.
Reid’s primary focus in all the training camps, according to Mandeep, has been on honing the attack, improving tackling and technical aspects like 3D skills, where a player lifts the ball from the surface and dribbles it in the air – a technique often used by attackers to win penalty corners.
Refreshingly though, Reid chose to focus on India’s struggles in Sunday’s game rather than revelling in the back-to-back wins. “What was good today was we struggled,” he said referring to the second and third quarters, where India were down 1-3 and on the backfoot. “As we learn from that, it’s a good thing.”
For most teams, the Pro League is nothing but match practice before the Olympics. India seem to be treating the tournament the same way. For Reid, the wins over his former team would come as reassurance that the players are buying into his ideas. Whether this was a one-off, or if the improvement is genuine, will be clearer when world champions Belgium and Australia visit Bhubaneswar next month for similar twin ties.
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