The Hero Indian Super League (ISL) has been blessed with passionate, dedicated and tactically astute coaches since its inception in 2014.
In this article, I present to you my top eight coaches since the inaugural ISL season. The list includes a mix of some coaches of the past as well some recent coaches who still remain in charge of ISL sides.
Antonio López Habas
Antonio López Habas is now a household name in Indian football. He has spent several years in India, managing Atlético de Kolkata (now ATK Mohun Bagan, soon to be Mohun Bagan Super Giants) and Pune City. He was also re-hired as the ATK manager for the 2019/20 ISL campaign. His return to ATK pushed the club to success once again as they won their third ISL trophy in the span of six years.
The former Valencia and Celta Vigo manager won an ISL title with the Kolkata-based club in the inaugural ISL season. Players like Roy Krishna and David Williams were the standout players in his second stint, helping his side get over the line in the 2019/20 season.
Habas’ last stint with the club and in India came during the 2020/21 season. He would be replaced by another Spaniard, Juan Ferrando, who would go on to lead the side to an ISL title in 2023.
Mumbai City, under Des Buckingham in the 2022/23 season, looked like the best-ever ISL team since the league began. The Islanders nearly went unbeaten the entire season. Their solitary loss in the season came to a hungry Bengaluru side towards the back end of the campaign. They also registered the highest points tally for an ISL team, finishing with 46 points in the end.
Buckingham has been with Mumbai City since 2021, winning his first ISL trophy this season. He was previously with their sister club Melbourne City, where he worked as the assistant coach.
It’s not just the success he has brought to Mumbai, but also the style of play and authority with which the team play their football. With the likes of Bipin Singh, Lallianzuala Chhangte and Greg Stewart, Mumbai City look like the best ball-playing side in Indian football. If Buckingham remains at the club, he could soon become arguably the greatest-ever manager in Indian club football history.
English manager Simon Grayson has only spent one year in the ISL, but he has already achieved quite a bit in his first year in Indian football. He took Bengaluru to the final of the Hero Super Cup and won the Durand Cup before the commencement of the ISL season. He also managed to take Bengaluru to the ISL final in a season where many expected them to finish in the bottom half of the league table.
Grayson was astute and figured out how to turn around Bengaluru’s fortunes. He employed a back-five and ensured his side stopped leaking goals, after which they went on to win ten games in a row, finishing fourth in the league stage and beating arch-rivals Kerala Blasters and league-toppers Mumbai City on the way to their third ISL final.
Carles Cuadrat can only be associated with one side in the ISL — Bengaluru. He was the man chosen to replace Albert Roca at the club and continue the successful years he brought to Bengaluru. He’s the second manager on this list who has led the Blues to ISL success.
Cuadrat’s side loved to keep possession and dominate the other side in midfield. His style of play led to glory in the ISL during the 2018/19 campaign. However, the manner of his coaching seemingly deteriorated over the years due to ageing players being included in the side.
Cuadrat was part of the era that saw Bengaluru dominating Indian football. The club first made it to the AFC Cup final in 2016 and the ISL final in the 2017/18 season under Albert Roca before winning the tournament under Cuadrat. The team were set up for the Spanish coach by his mentor, Roca, and he managed to put the pieces together, leading Bengaluru to their first ISL trophy. The 2020/21 season eventually saw his downfall and his dismissal, after Bengaluru failed to make the top four.
Hyderabad have cemented their place as a big club in Indian football over the last couple of seasons. A huge reason for their success is down to their Spanish manager, Manolo Márquez. Since his arrival, Hyderabad have steadily improved, finishing fifth in his first season in charge and then finishing second in the following two seasons.
Márquez also registered Hyderabad’s maiden ISL trophy win in the 2021/22 season when his side went on to beat Kerala Blasters on penalties. He followed that up with yet another good season, with Hyderabad narrowly missing out on a second consecutive ISL final.
Juan Ferrando took charge of a club riddled with controversy as far as their fans go. The club demanded Ferrando to be at the top of his game given the many trophies already in their kitty. ATK Mohun Bagan have won the most number of ISL titles of all the sides competing. Ferrando took them to third in the league table in the 2021/22 and 2022/23 campaigns.
Ferrando’s significant contribution came in the 2022/23 season, when he led ATK to the ISL title. Many would argue that ATK were not quite the best side in the tournament given Mumbai City’s incredible season and Bengaluru’s turnaround. Regardless, Ferrando’s side got the job done on penalties in the semi-final against Hyderabad and in the final against Bengaluru.
Spanish coaches indeed dominate this list, and it would be unfair not to mention Albert Roca in a list about the greatest-ever coaches in ISL history. Of course, Roca spent just one season in India, but he still achieved great heights. He managed to take Bengaluru to the AFC Cup final in 2016, which they eventually ended up losing. However, it was a monumental feat considering they were the first-ever Indian side to make it to the AFC Cup final.
Moreover, Roca asserted his dominance as soon as he entered the ISL. His Bengaluru side finished eight points clear of Chennaiyin by the end of the league stage. Unfortunately for him, however, Bengaluru would come narrowly short of winning their first ISL trophy in their debut ISL season. Roca also brought in some brilliant players like Dimas Delgado, Miku and Erik Paartalu, who ended up having successful spells at the club.
Sergio Lobera has become extremely popular for his work with FC Goa. The Spaniard chose to continue his journey in Indian football with Mumbai City for the 2021/22 campaign after his success at Goa. He led the Islanders to the ISL title in the 2020/21 campaign, with his side finishing on top of the ISL league table.
Lobera’s record speaks for itself. He is also a former Barcelona assistant manager and a former Barcelona youth team manager. His reign in India came to an end in 2021 as he gave way to Des Buckingham.