We might have had coaches with lofty achievements, but Khalid Jamil is special in his own unique way and arguably the best India has had in recent years, barring Armando Colaco. His desire to push above the rest with minimum resources have earned him an unparalleled reputation in Indian football.
Spending childhood in the midst of one of the deadliest wars in modern history at the doorstep was not comforting, but for an Indian stuck in Kuwait, Khalid Jamil and his family tried their best to tide over the situation. In spite of prior indications, his father was not inclined to desert his establishment in the Gulf Nation but eventually took the flight back to India. Even though Khalid’s family returned back when the tension eased, the boy stayed back to complete his higher education, which was arguably a life-changing decision. As for his football aspirations were concerned, the aspirant met France’s then-national team coach Michel Platini during a U-14 camp and followed the legendary player like a role model since then.
Fortunately, India’s domestic structure was not rigid at that point in time, while their performance during the 1990s was shambolic - that allowed Khalid Jamil, an efficient footballer to attract lucrative contracts. Downing Mohun Bagan and East Bengal’s offers, both of which were sponsored by alcohol brands, proved why he was not from the usual bunch. But, he did make his debut on the domestic circuit for Air India during the 2000-01 season, subsequently, was summoned to the national team. Constant injuries plagued his entire career, which came to a halt in 2009, during his Mumbai FC days without playing a match for the team. But, the club did open him a window of opportunity, with him inducted as the manager of the side. 32 was indeed a young age for the trade. But, he was there to contradict all myths.
Working with a shoe-string budget in Indian football was no less than a nightmare, but Khalid’s vision was incredible, a tactical genius to say the least. Even though many might brand his style of play as unconventional, he worked out a way to churn out results. Squeezing out narrow 0-1 wins at their fortress - Cooperage Stadium was more than a regular affair, while ‘parking the bus’ drained their competitors more often than not. Even though a top-three finish evaded his team, there was no doubt that Mumbai FC was one of the most consistent teams in the I-League - the top tier tournament back then. The case at Aizawl FC was nothing better, with their funds not anywhere closer to the traditional powerhouses. Yet, he had to find a way to survive.
But a couple of things were evident in the new venture - the innumerable untapped talent hidden in the northeastern state of Mizoram and the passion of the local people for the sport. Signing over the dotted line in a critical juncture, after the side was relegated and brought back in a small span, after much speculation, Khalid knew he had many expectations to fill in. Roping in some of his trusted soldiers from the Western Metropolis, a few measured foreign signings and a bunch of local talents, he built a daring army within the hills. A slow but steady start soon turned out to be a championship effort, as they claimed a historic I-League title. And Guess, what? The salary of the entire team was lesser than their nearest competitor(Mohun Bagan)’s one foriegn signing - Sony Norde. Welcome to the world of Khalid Jamil.
After a couple of quiet seasons, during which he managed East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, Khalid was permanently deported to Northeast United FC in the Indian Super League - an area where he gained global fame. Unfortunately, it was against the norms to appoint an Indian head coach, which might look out of the box with teams operating with huge capital. That did not bother him, as the former I-League winning coach went on his business from the sidelines as deputy to the main architect.
He did get an opportunity, but when? Inevitably, when the team was in dire straits - with a slim chance of making it to the playoffs. Having stuck with the same setup for quite some time, he had an outline sketched already at the back of his mind. With the positives inherited from the outgoing manager, along with his personal inputs, Khalid managed to brew a blend for instant success. Starting off with a win over Jamshedpur FC was laudable, but following it up with victories against the top two teams in the league was not an ordinary feat.
Rising up from the puddle, the ‘Highlanders’ are dreaming of a top-four finish yet again, with four matches left so far in the group stages. Most importantly, Jamil is yet to lose a match this season as a manager. The contingent more or less remained the same, but the fearlessness injected into the players was clearly visible from the first game itself, with certain tweaks here and there. Even a layman would be able to comment on the fact that the Indian gaffer connects well with the local boys, identifies the strengths and weaknesses of a player with far more competence than any overseas recruit, which has a direct effect on the game. On the tactical aspect, Khalid is one of the best game readers in Indian football. One of his masterstrokes - fielding Zohminliana Ralte against the title defining match against Mohun Bagan is well documented.
Whatever the situation, Khalid Jamil always has a solution, but he is not vocal regarding the same, as he is during press conferences. The effort put in by him and the results do all the talking for him. Even if he does inspire the ‘Highlanders’ to the play-offs, or a respectable finish, there is no certainty whether he would retain his post, but the spark in him must be taken note of. Of all Indian coaches, Khalid Jamil might have the best chance to break the trend of importing foreigners by ISL teams to change their fortunes.