Off The Pitch with Khuri Irani – Featuring Sporting Director Karolis Skynkys

Fans of Kerala Blasters Football Club, witnessed an interview like never before when Khuri Irani hosted Karolis Skynkys on Sunday night on #OffThePitch with Khuri on behalf of Manjappada. With the induction of Karolis into the club, the management has shown grit and determination to make things better for the club. As Khuri rightly mentioned in her interview, Karolis has been the brains and the brawn of the club for this season. For those of you who missed the interview, read on to find out what the big boss had to say about the recent developments and the preparations for the upcoming season.

The whole idea of clubs having a Sporting Director is alien to Indian Football and this is what Karolis had to say when asked about his goals as a Sporting Director.

“It is a wide role. My job is to control and create the sporting side of the club. It includes staff, players, the first team, and structure of the youth teams. In the current circumstances, it is difficult to organize anything in the youth circle now but that is also an important part of my job. It is my job to be responsible for the final result and this is the truth.”

Having already worked as a Sporting Director, Karolis also spoke about how he accepted the new challenge and decided to come to Kerala.

“When this discussion started, I did my research about the club and I met the people. It was an easy decision to make. In my previous environment, I spent there five years and it was a nice time there but I needed a new challenge and honestly I was feeling ready for a new challenge. It was a pleasure to accept this responsibility.”

Karolis’ most important decision after taking up the role was the induction of Kibu Vicuna as the head coach of the team. Karolis’ thoughts on Kibu’s appointment were as follows.

“Of all the decisions, this was the decision I was most sure about. Kibu worked in Lithuania. I know feedback from close people, his previous clubs in Poland. He is already experienced in India, he knows this market, and (he) has already adapted here. I am very happy we finally reached the agreement and that he joined the club.”

After Kibu’s arrival, Karolis said that the most important thing he had to address was the current pandemic and that it played a huge role in many of the decisions that were made.

“The most important thing was Covid19 and it was crucial in many decisions. All organizations did not know what was going to happen. We did not know when the season would happen or when the preseason would happen. These players who leave the club, not everybody leaves for sporting reasons, it was also the circumstances. We are positive people, professionals and we try to create as good as possible a team. We are looking forward to creating success.”

The team last reached the ISL playoffs in the 2016 season and have had forgetful seasons ever since. The fans are longing for results and for the trophy. Karolis had an interesting view when asked what was going to be different this season.

“The first thing we need to do is to not speak about the trophy. We need other people to talk about the club. This is an important thing for the players .We are not the ones to talk and rise ourselves. We need to work harder and go step by step. Many things are different, different team, different staff. It is an important time. We have 25 personalities. I trust in Kibu. He is an experienced coach. We passed the first stage, we got the players we trust. In sports, it is never final. If you finish one thing, there’s another. ”

With a completely new set of players and coaching staff, everyone is hopeful of positive results. The team now has a Tactical Analyst and a Mental Conditioning coach, too. This was Karolis’ response on the strategy and technique he used in selecting the players, coach, and the support staff.

“First criteria was professionalism. We need professionals, ambitious people and I think we managed to find them. Kibu managed to bring his coaching staff, his assistants from previous club and a Mental Conditioning coach from Spain. I am very happy about goalkeeping coach Yusuf (Ansari). The Indian assistant coach and technical analyst are also very professional. I am very happy to be around with them. Now we need to patiently do our job day by day. Don’t speak loudly but show it in the work in a positive way”

With matches going to behind closed doors, the team is going to miss their greatest strength – the fans. Karolis emphasized on the importance of fans too.

“I know that everybody is telling the same that fans are very important and so on. It is 100% true that this is an additional flush of emotions and emotions are a serious factor in sports. You have 90 minutes to prove who is better and even emotionally you can do something. I do not want to repeat the same. If fans are hearing this, they must know that they are a huge factor. I am not happy that we will not have supporters but that is the situation all around the world. This season we must play 11 against 11 and not 12 against 11. ”

With the pandemic making life difficult for everyone, the most important thing that has affected the teams is the preseason. Karolis’ thoughts on this were as follows.

“It is not an ideal situation for sure but we are trying to make it as smooth as possible. Our Indian players have been training very hard. Few of our foreigners are still in quarantine and three of them are still travelling to India. It is far away from good conditions. I am not blaming anything but this is the situation all around the world. In current circumstances, we are putting maximum effort to make it as good as possible. There are some risks with respect to injuries. It is not normal to train in three weeks, you need a minimum of six weeks. Our situation is the same as other clubs and we need to move on.”

Injuries and preseason preparations have never been in favor of the club and this year it is going to be even worse. With just two weeks’ preparation for the team as a whole unit, Karolis said they are paying close attention to the preparations.

“Coaches do not get this knowledge when they go for a pro license. They are not taught how to prepare a team in two weeks. Normally you prepare a team in 6-8 weeks. It is not the standard and it is a difficult situation. You need to measure the load you give to the players. You need to understand how much is too much. It is difficult and a huge challenge for the staff. It is difficult for the players to communicate what they feel and how they feel. We need good communication and we need to listen to each other. We do not know how it will go, nobody knows. You can have short preparations. Our Indian players last played in February or March. This is not the life of a professional player. This is also a reason for the injuries and not just preparations. I really hope we can give as much as football throughout the year especially for the Indian players. They are getting practice, experience and consistent fitness. It is not the same if you sit in a room and exercise. It is difficult situation to handle but we were trying our best. ”

Karolis was out of quarantine on Sunday and an all Indian contingent won a pre-season friendly against Hyderabad FC yesterday. This was Karolis’ impression on the Indian players after seeing them live in action.

“It was a very positive impression about hard work. You can feel the passion. Everybody is passionate. They want to play and improve. This makes the job of the coach easier. There are many different environments and there are so difficult people to handle but our players are fantastic. We still have time and will play three more friendly games. We will build this (the team) as much as possible.”

Kerala blasters have always been a club that encourages youngsters. The club has produced three Emerging Players of the Season in the league’s six year history and this year is no different. Here’ what the Sporting Director had to say about the new crop of youngsters in the team.

“I will be excited when we reach the results. They are talented but there is so much job in front. I told this to them and will keep telling this. It is not that I don’t celebrate them, we need to celebrate when we win something. Now, we have the opportunity to develop them and to make them champions and they have the opportunity to grow and do something special (for the club). This is a positive situation for both sides. ”

Karolis also spoke in particular about few players when asked about the recent signings and the contract extensions.

On Sahal Abdul Samad: “I think that it was important for him and the club to know the future. He can clearly develop and play in this team and reach the targets. It is clear and to concentrate only on football and about improvement. He is one of the best Indian players in the ISL but he still has room to improve. I am very happy that we reached this agreement. It is important to have the Kerala local boy to play in this level.”

On Nishu Kumar’s long term deal: “He is a quality player and it is advantage to have a national team player. We have agreed to the agreement based on his age. We have picked the man and set our requirements for this season. There is pressure on him also to perform. Nishu is a smart guy and is professional. We are really happy to have him.” On long term contracts: “We are trying to make the main group of players for a long term. It is easier when you have the same (set of) players season after season. I am pretty sure that the positivity and hard work of these players are an advantage. One player coming for a long term indicates that he cares more for the club generally because he knows that he will not run away and will live with what we achieve. This is more responsibility.”

On Rahul KP and the first preseason friendly: “(He) scored a couple of goals today. He is also a local boy. He is a talented player. He is fast and has quality. Today, he scored two goals and helped the team win the match. I am very happy. Great performance. It is the first friendly game. It is fantastic that we won the game but it is nothing so far, we need to continue. ”

This year saw a major revamp in the squad that led to the departure of the some key players this honestly created some confusion among the fans. Here’s how Karolis responded to these tough decisions.

On Jinghan’s departure: “It is no big secret to not talk about this. As I told in the beginning, it has been the circumstances. Every club in ISL would probably want to have him but circumstances was like this that we cannot (have him). I think in a positive and nice way that we divorced. What happened has happened. To fill shoes, he is an Indian player and is a central defender. There are not many Indians in that role. We will probably use more foreigners in this position. It is the coach’s decision. Time will show what will happen.”

On Ogbeche’s departure: “He is a professional. He did a good job in Kerala. People love him. Obviously a tough thing to do but situation goes in this way. We cannot force and change this situation. This happens in football, these changes happen. Fans love the people in the club but the most important thig is the club. Nobody is bigger than the club. We move on.”

The management has managed to get some high profile names in the foreign department and they come with a lot of experience in top leagues. Here’s what Karolis had to say about the new set of foreign players and their.

“They are same like the Indian players. On the pitch we have five foreigners and six Indians. We need to challenge the opponent (by showing) which side is better. If you have the best of both (Indian and foreign contingent), you are probably the better team.

On high profile signings: “All of these players, we trust. They are all important. We as a team must depend on their performance. It is pressure and responsibility on their shoulders. Now it is time to show how big profiles and big players they are. (It is) not only the profiles that are important but performance is (also) important. We believe that they can do a good job and try to find the way how they can explore and impress. I don’t think we need to personally talk about each other because the goals for them are the same. It is a big responsibility for them.”

On the most promising signing (Indian or foreigner) this season: “I don’t want to say names now. Again, it is like an empty vase so far. We will see everything on the pitch, in the training ground, in friendly games, and in official matches. Whatever I say now, we will watch it throughout the season and at the end of the season we will decide who the best player was. ”

On the comparison with foreign signings of other clubs: “It might not be ethical to talk about other clubs’ signings. We did as good (well) as we can according to the budget and according to the market. We pushed as much as we can and hopefully it will go well.”

On the selection of the Asian player: “Actually, this rule is strange to me, that clubs must have one Asian player. This does not make the market natural. Many Asian players are working on that and they just want to add some money and get overpaid. I am very happy that we finally had an agreement with Jordan (Murray). He will bring energy and (an) honest wish to perform and it is important from the foreigners’ side. It was our last signing. It makes sense from the AFC Champions league perspective but it is not my favorite rule because it makes the market strange. It would be interesting for me to discuss this with some people who made this rule and why it was done. May be I am not thinking about some things but in my perspective it is a strange rule.”

On the importance of age and experience: “Quality is important, not age not experience. When you manage to find quality, it depends on the market. Young quality costs more (millions). If you manage to find young quality, it is fantastic. Nothing can be more than quality. If we follow the rule of quality, we will perform.”

On the balance in attach and defence: “It is important to make the defence stronger. Everyone who follows the club knows that it is one of the jobs to do.”

The fans were curious to know the vision and the club’s plans of having its own stadium. Karolis provided an honest answer that emphasized on the significance of understanding the current pandemic and prioritizing the right things.

“This question is not for me and is not in the right circumstances. Honestly, I believe that these restrictions and protocols that we need to follows as much important as football because the best organized team overall will have an advantage. Imagine if someone gets Covid, you can lose half of your team and nobody will care after. We need to make sure that our medical team needs to do a good job and we follow all protocols. That is more important. ”

With the Covid protocols and restrictions, a lot of coaches have been considering mental conditioning as the key factor for players to be able to perform better. It is difficult for players staying away from family. Here’s Karolis’ take on mental conditioning.

“One of our assistance coaches (Tomasz Tchórz) is an experienced person in this. Mental conditioning starts from good well organized procedures. When everything goes well, people don’t have reasons to be angry or desperate. We are six months in the hotel without families. It is a challenge for the coaching staff on how to make some days more exciting, what new activities to do. We already had this discussion with Kibu on how to make some days different from the other days.”

Karolis also set his expectations from the fans when he spoke about how Bakary Kone was surprised by the reception he got from the fans.

“Bakary Kone was very surprised at the level of support he was getting from the fans. He told that it is amazing that so much people are supporting me. I really hope when we have the possibility to allow fans in the stadium that I don’t see empty seats and that they are full. It is also up to the team and the responsibility of the team to show the results but we will expect the fans to be there.”

Here is Karolis’ final message to the fans as the Sporting Director of Kerala Blasters Football Club.

“We altogether need to step by step grow and move forward. I expect to move step by step this season. I am not a man who will give big promises and tell something amazing. Let’s be simple and make some steps forwards. Everybody in this organization will try and put some steps forwards. My message is that I never imagined that supporters could be so positive. This positivity is so amazing. Normally, there are more complains but this is 100% support and there are no doubts about that. I would like to thank you for that. It matters for the players, for the coaches, and for the organization. This positive attention really helps to convince players to come to the club. It can help. Keep your way. This is huge for everyone who is working to bring results. Thank you so much.”

With a tough and challenging season ahead, we as a responsible fan club urge all the fans to trust the process and stay with the club through thick and thin. We, like each one of you, hope that we have an amazing season ahead. We also take this opportunity to wish all our players and staff a very safe and successful season. We might not be there physically in the stands but our support will still remain constant.


-Ashwin R Chandran


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