How Manolo Marquez transformed Hyderabad FC into champions

"When I arrived in India, I found a group of players who wanted to listen to me from the first day." Arjun Singh/Sportzpics for ISL

There was a moment in Manolo Marquez's first season at Hyderabad FC when he knew they were going to do something special. It was the second game of the season, and they were facing (then a very strong) Bengaluru FC. It was just the second season in Hyderabad's existence, the first having ended in rock bottom - 10 points. No one had really given Marquez, or his Hyderabad much chance. It didn't help that at a time when ISL teams could have seven foreigners in their squad, Hyderabad had signed only six, and that one of those - centre forward Fran Sandaza - had suffered a long-term injury in pre-season training. Against Bengaluru, attacking midfielder Joel Chianese had to be subbed off just past the half hour mark. Central midfielder Luis Sastre, meanwhile, didn't make it out after half-time. Both had suffered nasty-looking injuries (confirmed later to be long-term ones). One and a half games into your season, and you have half your foreigners, some of your best players, out? After what had happened the season before you arrived? Well...

"We were in the dressing room at halftime," recalls Marquez, with a wistful smile, "and I said 'look, now we have two [options]. One is to say oh, what a pity, oh what can we do and the other is to [realise] this is the moment you have to show your personality.'" With just three foreigners playing in the XI for most of the season against teams that invariably fielded five, Marquez's players showed their personality alright. Unfancied, written off, they came within a goal of reaching the playoffs that season. A year later, he led them to the ISL championship.

Out of the restrictive bio-bubble and free of the crammed schedule of ISL 2021-22, Marquez looks a relaxed figure. He's ditched his retired-uncle/neighbour look of oversized collared t-shirt and perma-frown for a neat little black sweater and an easy smile. He leans forward, towards the computer screen, and speaks in a slow, deliberate tone. There's an easy authority to his voice, and you sense he can shift from friendly to headmaster-ly like that *snaps fingers*.

It has been a quite incredible two seasons for Marquez in India. When complimented, he just shrugs, smiles and takes it all in his stride. He's hesitant to call his first season a "success" despite everyone else calling it just that. Outperforming expectations and showing great potential is all well and good but three points are three points. "In professional football, the most important thing is to win the game." He has his philosophy - play out of the back, be on the front foot, entertain the crowd, create chances - "but for me one of the most important qualities in a coach is to adapt to the players. I don't like too much to defend, defend, defend, but if you don't have the correct players to [play his preferred way], you will lose the ball. The possibilities of winning depend on the qualities of your players and you have to adapt to them."

Adapt to them he did, and them to him.

After two years under Marquez, (20-year-old) Akash Mishra and Ashish Rai (23) are arguably India's best fullbacks. Chinglensana Sana (26) went from struggling to get game time at FC Goa to become the nation's best ball playing centre-back. Marquez says there isn't a left foot in the country better than Mohammed Yasir (24) and it's hard to argue against that. Hitesh Sharma (24) and Souvik Chakrabarti (29) have played the best football of their careers. Aniket Jadhav has come in this season and looked sharp. Liston Colaco laid the foundations for the magic he showed off at ATK Mohun Bagan in the previous season with Hyderabad, under Marquez.

For the coach, it's all about his players. "When I arrived in India, I found a group of players who wanted to listen to me from the first day. I love all of them... it's a complete pleasure to train with them. They want to improve every training session!" It's that mentality that he adores. "I always say that I prefer a normal player with confidence, than one very good player without."

"When the level of the training session is high, usually the season is good. Of course, there will be bad moments, bad results, but even in these kinds of situations, the team was very strong. After every defeat, the team reacted very well." These may sound like cliches, but when your performances and results back you up, they become merely facts. For instance, after their four losses this season, they had three wins and a draw.

He has learned the importance of training sessions, confidence, and mentality through sheer dint of experience. 2022-23 will be Marquez's 34th consecutive year in management. He has trained across categories, from under-11s to under-13s to LaLiga: "all the categories... not too many people can say this, eh?" He was always convinced he'd be a coach, even during the eight years he spent as a very vocal centre-back in Spain's third tier. He has always wanted to do what he's doing now. It's helped put the season gone by in perspective.

There's still a bit of anger about how things ended in the league stage, with the COVID-19 wave hitting them just ahead of the virtual league shield decided against Jamshedpur, but for the most part he reflects happily on the season gone by. He praises his players freely (sample: "Joao Victor is, in my opinion, the best player in the league. He is the most decisive in terms of everything: leadership, football") as well as his sporting director, Sujay Sharma, the man responsible for assembling his squad. He speaks about how differently they have played across the two seasons - the first being all about adapting and teaching and the other about effectiveness and just being clinical. For him, that change is exemplified by his striker from the first season, Aridane Santana, and main man from the second, Bartholomew Ogbeche.

"For me Aridane is one of the most important players that we've had. He [along with Odei Onaindia and Sastre] was very, very important for the Indian guys. It's not only on the pitch, it's off it too." Meanwhile, Ogbeche made a big impact with his clinical finishing. "We didn't need much to score this year. Some games, the opponent attacked more, but two counters and it's 2-0 to us." Which is not to say they sacrificed their entertainment factor - nobody scored more than their 43 goals in 20 league games; no one even came close to Ogbeche's individual tally of 17 goals - just that they cut out their debilitating habit of missing chances and drawing very winnable games.

Now, a championship defence awaits.

"Maybe we are not ATKMB or Mumbai City, but we are the current champions, and for sure [we] want to repeat [it]. I know that it [will be] very difficult, but [the aim] is to at least compete till the end of the season."

He knows that they are still the underdogs, that big clubs will be circling his best players - just like Bagan did with Colaco. "If you're in Spain, this is life in a team who's not Barcelona or Real Madrid... the best teams want to sign your players. But on the other side if you want to continue growing, you have to try to keep them. If Hyderabad wants to grow, if Hyderabad wants to be champions again, if you want to recover [the legacy] of Hyderabad Police from 50-60 years ago... then you have to try to keep your [best] players."

Being an underdog is something he's used to. "I am from Barcelona, and I support Espanyol," but he also knows how to be an underdog without a chip on his shoulder. "I like Barcelona too. It's difficult, like a Mohun Bagan fan liking East Bengal," he laughs. "But I have friends on both teams."

After our talk, he asks to make one thing very clear: that he will see out his contract at Hyderabad. There's no smiling, no laughing. It's the headmaster this time. "I read Mumbai wants Manolo Marquez, another team wants me... I didn't touch my contract! I will finish it."

So next season, pandemic permitting, the city of Hyderabad will be treated to the sight of a large, slump-shouldered man prowling up-and-down his technical area, guiding the league's champions, continuing to write one of its most captivating stories.

Manolo Marquez may have already become a winner, but he's not done just yet. Don't you worry about that.

Manolo's favourites

Coaching inspiration: Laureano Ruiz (famously of La Masia)

Favourite coach currently: Pep Guardiola (for his innovation)

Favourite coach currently II: Jurgen Klopp (for his leadership)

Favourite player all time: Diego Armando Maradona

Favourite player currently: Leo Messi