the coach who transformed Hyderabad from underdogs to champions

Manuel Marquez Roca is the best coach in the Indian Super League. Let me tell you why:

  • Inherited a team which was bottom of the league

  • Played majorly with an almost all-Indian squad in his first season due to injuries to his foreign players. Missed the playoffs by two points.

  • Second season, continued to bank on his Indian players and beat the financial heavyweights in the league to win the ISL title.

For his magic with a motley squad, for his faith in his unheralded Indian players and for actually coaching them to the title, that is why Manolo Marquez is ESPN India’s Coach of the Year (2022).

Hyderabad FC had nothing to show after their debut campaign. They’d endured a painful first season and finished at the bottom. For season two, they’d zeroed down on former Bengaluru FC coach Albert Roca as their first-choice coach, but the Spaniard took an offer from Barcelona instead.

In comes Marquez, the headmaster. A head of thick salt and pepper hair, neck craned and shoulders slouched, a strong Spanish accent and a perma-scowl. He’s not scowling at you, that’s just how he wears his face.

Marquez, well into his 60s, inherited a team that was far inferior in comparison to the Indian Super League’s heavyweights (you know who they are). But what he did with that squad has been the stuff of wonder.

In his first season, he gave a glimpse of what his young squad was capable of. They played a refreshing brand of football, let the Indian players play out from the back, did not simply hoof the ball to the striker (Dimitar Berbatov would’ve enjoyed playing at Hyderabad) and finished just two points shy of the playoffs.

The real magic, though, came in his second season when he marshalled his young squad to the ISL crown.

He turned his team of underdogs into the ISL victors by unlocking their potential and playing them in positions that best suit their game. No big superstar player was calling the shots, no one was bigger than the team. Marquez knew what he was doing (the man’s got 35+ years of coaching experience!) and he unabashedly backed and trusted his men.

He played Indians in key positions, something other coaches often refrained from. Akash Mishra and Asish Rai were his trusted fullbacks and he used them to the best of their abilities. Akash would make a marauding run down the left flank every now and then, while Asish was encouraged to exercise his crossing abilities. Akash and Asish were raw talent: they came from Indian Arrows, a developmental youth team that used to play in the I-League, Indian football’s second division.

How Manolo Marquez transformed Hyderabad FC into champions

Marquez’s faith in his unpolished Indian youngsters, including the likes of Mohammad Yasir, Hitesh Sharma and the slightly senior Halicharan Narzary paid dividends when his foreigners were out due to injury. The Indians formed the core of the team and were instrumental in their ISL title triumph. Heck, they could’ve won the League Shield too if not for injuries to key players and a COVID wave wreaking havoc in the team just days before the crunch encounter against Jamshedpur FC. Jamshedpur went on to win the League Shield, awarded to the team that tops the standings at the end of the league stage.

Even this season, a little over mid-way into the ISL season, Hyderabad FC are the team to beat. They top the standings (although they’ve played an additional game) despite their top striker, Bartholomew Ogbeche, not firing on all cylinders. Ogbeche, ISL’s leading scorer, has three goals to his name but so do Yasir and Narzary. And that’s Manolo’s magic – where other teams pin their success to their foreigners’ performances, Manolo distributes the task among his Indian players.

In essence, that also makes Hyderabad FC the most admirable team in the league. That every player that has played under Marquez has improved. Some like Akash and Asish have become starters for the national team while others like Liston Colaco (now at ATK Mohun Bagan) were helped onto the path of superstardom by Marquez.

ISL: ‘I did my job’ – Kattimani exorcises demons of present, and past, en-route to ISL title

One of the most impressive performance graphs was goalkeeper Laxmikant Kattimani’s: He made a blunder in the 2015 ISL final but redeemed himself with a heroic performance in the penalty shootout of the 2022 final for Hyderabad FC. Marquez has not only improved his team, but has directly contributed to Indian football’s progress too. There aren’t too many ISL managers you can say that about.

That’s the hallmark of a good coach, isn’t it? To develop your players, empower them and bring out the spark in their game. And it’s all the more commendable when your squad is filled with young players and no prima donnas. That’s Marquez for you. In this David vs Goliath battle, David had the last laugh…and Marquez had coached him.

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