From the Arsenal youth system and senior side to playing in the lower leagues in England, Graham Stack knows a thing or two about English football at all levels.
In 2016 though, the shot-stopper was given an opportunity to try something completely new as his former boss at Reading Steve Coppell offered him the chance to be a player-coach at the Kerala Blasters.
While it would undoubtedly have been a difficult decision for him to spend time away from his family and acclimatise to a new country, culture and level of football, it was an experience that he seemingly relished as he speaks in detail about his adventure in the ISL.
“It wasn’t life-changing money, by any means. It was a four-month contract that probably generated an 18-month salary for me over here. But the chance to embrace a new culture, a new environment, on the other side of the world, I just thought: ‘Wow, what a fantastic opportunity.”
With a successful mix of foreign players to adhere to the Indian Super League’s quota system to add experience and quality to the local players, it was an intriguing situation for the veteran goalkeeper to be in.
Nevertheless, he embraced it as he looks back on his stint with the franchise with fond memories, while also remembering the moments he enjoyed in a packed stadium as the popularity of the sport continues to rise.
“We had 80,000 people and, at times, you’d think the stadium was just going to collapse. I’ve never experienced anything like it, and I never will. Real fanatics, but that was Kerala. Believe it or not, football is their primary sport, not cricket. That’s saying something.”
Although the season ended in disappointment, with the odds stacked against them when facing eventual two-time Finals winners Atletico De Kolkota who remain a worthy side to back for future success if you fancy having a flutter, Stack returned to England and eventually took up a coaching role at Watford.
The former Arsenal man has made no secret of the positives he took away from his time in India though.
“It wasn’t until you started putting a few things down on paper on the plane on the way home that you think: Blimey, what an experience.’
“What I experienced off the pitch with that group of players will always mean more to me than what happened on it. It surpassed all my expectations.”
While it sounds as though Stack has come away from his stint in India with great things to say and positive advice to hand on to those potentially considering a similar path, he believes that there is still a long way to go in order for the ISL to flourish and become a leading league in that part of the world.
“I think it needs a little bit more exposure in this part of the world. It will struggle as the Chinese league has. You can throw millions and millions at it but it doesn’t necessarily mean the league is going to become a success if you’re going to sign a load of marquee players.
“The quality of football has to be something that people want to watch. There has to be good quality players on show. The idea of cutting the foreign players will restrict the amount of interest that they’re going to get in this part of the world.”
With high profile names from Europe coupled with continued investment, it remains to be seen how far the ISL can go. As detailed in the graphic below, the infrastructure and planning seems to be there, and with glowing references like those provided by Stack, perhaps it will help them more so with their continued improvement.