There are a number of storylines that stand out ahead of the start of the new I-League season but perhaps the most poignant one is of Srinagar-based club Real Kashmir, who will be making their top division debut in the 2018-19 campaign and will become the first team from the state of Jammu & Kashmir to feature in the professional top flight in India.
Formed just four years ago, the side secured their promotion after a dramatic campaign in the second division, which concluded with a 3-2 win against Hindustan FC in May – thus rounding off a fairytale run for the team. Leading the team from the touchline was coach David Robertson, who enjoyed a stellar career with Scottish Premier League giants Rangers FC as a player, and has previously coached sides in his native Scotland and the United States.
AIFF Media spoke to the six-time Scottish Premier Division winner, where he talked about the upcoming season, his experience in India so far and his thoughts on the talents of the local Kashmiri players among other things.
After a fairytale season in the second division last time around, what are your expectations going into the team’s first season in the I-League?
It has been quite an incredible last few months for us at the club. We have no expectations laid down as such and just want to take one game at a time. We’d like to compete well in our games, make sure we go in there and hold our own and after 2-3 games, we’ll see how the team does and get an idea of where we can finish towards the end of the season.
I’ve been a great believer in the fact that one should take one game at a time – particularly since it’s our first time playing at the top level. I have seen and studied the level of the I-League and Indian football in the last two years and we hope that we are organized and play to our level best.
How has your experience been with the team so far? How has it been adjusting to life in India?
It’s been great obviously, coming from Scotland and the US and then moving to India and Kashmir. It was a culture shock at the start but once you get to know people in the area, it’s all very well.
There have been just two players from Kashmir who have gone on to play at a high level in India and that’s something we want to change. I can say for sure there is a lot of talent here and it struck me since I first came here. The last second division match against Hindustan FC – we won it with six Kashmiris in the team.
We wish to inspire young kids in the region. The I-League matches will be telecast on national TV and the team has generated a lot of interest here, so hopefully, we’ll get noticed. The state’s been forgotten about for a number of years and hopefully we can change that.
How was your team’s pre-season as a whole? How did the team enjoy the trip to Germany?
Germany and Dortmund are big names in football, obviously. A year ago we took the boys to Scotland as we wanted to expose them to new experiences – in terms of football as well as life. The trip to Germany was great and next summer we’ll probably do something like this again.
Pre-season matches in Mumbai were great as well. We played five games and like everybody else, we’re building up to the first game of the season. There are still a few bits and pieces to add but the fitness levels of my players are great. We can’t wait for the season to start!
What are your thoughts on the local Kashmiri players in your team? Any names that we can expect to stand out by the end of the season?
There are three players that come to mind – Farhan Ganie, Danish Farooq and Muhammad Hammad. There are other ones as well but these three played with us last year and I hope they continue to do well and contribute to the team’s cause.
What kind of atmosphere can we expect at the stadium during your home games?
There’s a lot of excitement! In some of the second division games, especially against Lonestar Kashmir, there was a great atmosphere at the ground. We’re hoping for more of the same when the established Indian clubs come in.
Our stadium’s quite tight and can get loud. At the moment, it is getting done up and upgraded, which will be good for the fans. I’m sure teams will find it difficult to come here and play against us.
What message would you like to give your team’s fans?
They’ve all waited for a long, long time for this moment and it’s finally happened after a fairytale story. I request them to come out in numbers and enjoy the experience, cheer us on and help us get through. It’s our first season! Hopefully, the fans are also as excited as we are.