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  • Writer's pictureRitwik Khanna

Rishish Dubey: More Than A Coach

This is a personal piece. Whether you consider that a warning or an invitation, is up to you. This piece doesn’t have any insight into Indian football and neither does it have any information. It is the story of a man and my relationship with him; a man who gave Indian football his all, running himself into the ground in the process.

Admittedly, the story is not unique. The low financial reward and lack of recognition means that Indian football is littered with such people. They all deserve a space of their own and perhaps over time I will attempt to give each story its due share but for now, I can only talk about Rishish Dubey, a man who I was privileged enough to know rather well, albeit for an unfortunately short time.

I met him in the heady days of January 2016. He had recently opened up an academy - a branch of the Football School of India franchise - in our shared hometown of Bhopal, leaving a cushy job in London. In my first week of training with him, there were just four players. In my second week of training, he told me he wanted to win an all-India competition that was to be held four months later. By the fifth week of training, he had built a squad of 20 players, all of whom wanted to win the above mentioned competition. That was Rishish Dubey, the Coach - focused, confident and effective.

By the standards of Bhopal, his training sessions were revolutionary. In hindsight, he was following basic templates of coaching that even I have accustomed myself to now but in a town with scarce resources, he was Pep Guardiola reincarnate. Perhaps more surprising than his training was the fact that he was intent on making us better people. I have not had a coach before or after him who would keep us hours after training to impart general wisdom with the hope of guiding us towards a positive path regardless of whether we became footballers or not.

Giving one of the team talks that would last for hours after a practice or match

In May of that year, we travelled to Goa for the tournament. I was (un)fortunate enough to have my seat in the same compartment as him for the 26 hour train journey. A week earlier, he had told me I would not start in the tournament because I had missed practice after over-exerting for a school match. However, two days before we were due to leave, the other goalkeeper committed the cardinal sin of turning up late for a practice match with no valid reason and thus, he was forced to play me. I expected to hear an earful over the same in the journey but he was understanding, and we largely talked about other, non-football things. That was Rishish Dubey, the Mentor. Tough but sympathetic.

We performed exceptionally well in the tournament, reaching the final without conceding a goal. The final went to penalty shootouts after a 0-0 draw in normal time. I saved a tame first penalty but my teammates missed the first two and we trailed. After the third penalty, he called me over. He told me to look at him before the fifth penalty. I nodded but in that adrenaline fueled moment, I forgot about it and we lost. Later, he told me that the opposition had been following a pattern and he needed the fourth penalty to confirm it, but thanks to my airheadedness he couldn’t convey the same. Since then, I have detected patterns in three penalty shootouts and managed to save five penalties across them. As a player, he made you think. Few coaches in India attempt to do so and fewer succeed.

FSI Bhopal team for Goa Super Cup May 2016

A couple of months later, the two of us travelled to Denmark and Iceland for a training camp and to participate in the Rey Cup in Reykjavik. Again, I got a seat next to him on the 10 hour flight. This time, it was by choice.

At his academy, he conducted classes every Sunday for the underprivileged kids who lived in slums nearby. He inducted two of them into daily training, paying all expenses out of his own pocket. He used to ask us to help out and we would, reluctantly. Another example of how he dragged us into becoming better people.I do not know where those two are now but I intend to find out on my next visit back to Bhopal. I am sure they too have been dragged to a better path, thanks to his perseverance.

From one of the Football4All Sundays

In October of 2016, he helped me get into the U16 I-league team for FSI based in Navi Mumbai. I joined the squad just a day before the tournament started, becoming the first person from Bhopal to play in any age level of the I-league. In between the tournament, I came back to Bhopal without informing him for a school tournament. I was on scholarship. I had a duty to fulfill to my school and my teammates. Inevitably, he found out and I was duly suspended from FSI Bhopal while representing FSI (India). That was Rishish Dubey, the Person. Stubborn and unwavering in his beliefs.

By the time I got back, it was exam season and football had to be put on hold to compensate for the preceding shenanigans. I trained with him for a couple of months into my twelfth standard but had to stop because of my studies, again. I had an implicit understanding with my parents that this particular year would be bereft of football to secure a remotely respectable college. And so we headed our separate ways. Me, off to tuition and he, off to start his own club.

Madhya Bharat Sports Club was formed in the early months of 2017. In the summer, they hired Jose Hevia, a UEFA A license coach and held trials. In the winter, they were unable to participate in the youth I-leagues. In early 2018, they played (and lost all matches) in the I-league senior 2nd division. By summer 2018, the club had shut down.

Rishish sir (I cannot address him any other way) had set-up an ideal club in the middle of nowhere on the Indian footballing map. On paper, everything was right. On the field, nothing was. The inability to secure registration in the youth I-league meant that the young academy boys were unable to play at a respectable level. What did he do? He let them play in the senior league.

Whether that was down to financial constraints or due to his moral beliefs, I cannot comment. By that time, I was busy learning integration formulae and trigonometric identities. The club did sign a few senior players but the team was far too weak and inexperienced to perform well. That was Rishish Dubey, the Administrator. Imperfect, unlike all his other roles which would prove to be his undoing.

In the midst of this, I learned that he had suffered health problems and I visited him in February 2018 prior to my board exams and the start of the second division. He had aged a decade in a year. We made small talk, talked of the future, how he would like me to join back after my exams. I said I would be glad to. I knew I wouldn’t.

On 10 June 2018, I received a message from him - “Happy Birthday Boy. Welcome to Adulthood.” On 1 July 2018, I got a call from my friend and former teammate who told me Rishish sir had passed away from a heart attack. In the ensuing days, there were reports in the papers that he committed suicide because of financial duress and family problems. I have never bothered to find out the truth. Maybe I am scared of what it will be. The only thing I found out later was that one of the last things he did before passing away was put one of the promising young players at MBSC in touch with an agent. He now plays football in Eastern Europe.

It did not hit me hard. In fact, I mourned for a few days and as college started and I got busy, I began to move on. One weird thing stuck with me. One specific conversation with him that I often used to think about was when he told me that I was too undisciplined to grow my hair out because there came a period where your hair is neither short nor long and you look ugly. He told me that I was too comfortable in my shell and I did not try new things for fear of failure. And so, to be poetic and prove him wrong, I decided to grow out my hair. I failed the first time, and got them cut soon. This summer, aided by the lockdown, I managed to succeed. That was my victory. I can endure transition, sir. I won. Soon I realized, he won. This was not my victory, it was his. He made me try new things and grow. From beyond the grave. You may not have made me a footballer, but you sure made me a better person.

I had warned at the beginning this is a personal piece. This is not a football article. It is a eulogy of sorts. Delayed by a couple of years. I am sure he hated the fact that I was late to this but I hope you can excuse me this one time, sir.

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