How the I-League was won

The I-League title is something we wanted as soon as that disappointing night ended last season. The pursuit of it troubled us for a while, but we soon pulled ourselves together and went about the task with one single motivation: to bring back what we gave away. It was only fitting that our coronation was complete at Mohun Bagan’s home.

Jubilant Bengaluru FC players toss their coach Ashley Westwood up in celebration after winning the I-League title.   -  K. MURALI KUMAR

The I-League champions arrive at the Kempegowda International Airport in Bengaluru.   -  Special Arrangement

It’s been a little more than a week playing D. J. Bravo’s ‘Champion’ incessantly on loop, but it refuses to get old or boring! We, at Bengaluru FC, have just been crowned winners of the I-League for the second time in three years, and the connect with every mention of the word ‘champion’ is instant with all the lads in the team.

The season has been nothing short of a rollercoaster, where the margin for error was so little given there were only 16 games to play for, but we held our own and peaked at the right time to get the job done with a game to spare. It was always going to be between Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Bengaluru FC, and we had what it took to pull ourselves across the finish line.

Actually, I might have to correct myself when I say that ‘Champion’ is what I’ve heard the most since our triumph. What I’ve surely heard more times is the one question, ‘What’s the secret behind Bengaluru FC’s win?’ Just like there is no one star in this team, there is no one answer to this question.

However, I will try to explain the reasons — without being too technical — that I feel played more than just a part in bringing back the cup to Bengaluru.

The team, the family

I have spent three years at the club and can very safely say that there hasn’t been one bad character in the dressing room across the seasons. The rapport between the boys, and the way the gaffer has anchored this feeling is the fulcrum around which this Bengaluru FC team revolves. It is this bond off the pitch that translates into good performances on it, where everyone is always looking out for the other. Since the club’s inception in 2013, there have been a fair number of new faces that have come in, but they have effortlessly blended with the other lads. It’s heartening to see Curtis Osano post a picture of him having a traditional meal with the boys from Manipur on his social media pages, or to hear of John Johnson taking the club cook out for a beer on an off day.

We’ve stayed together at the same apartments since the beginning and this is family in every sense of the term. All of this spills on to the pitch, where everyone is pushing the other and readily willing to fill in for someone who is having an off day or a bad patch.

When we lost Eugeneson Lyngdoh in the midfield for two months owing to an injury, we had everyone in the midfield stepping in to plug the gaps. When Eugene returned to play the last four games of the season, he scored three times and had one assist. The transition was seamless.

Keegan Pereira, who plays as a wingback, was needed in the centre of defence when Curtis suffered an injury and Johnson was suspended, and anyone who followed us will tell you what a brilliant job he had done in a position that isn’t his.

It’s an atmosphere I feel blessed to be part of, and while people think that results are always about the kind of football you play, I beg to differ. It’s got a lot to do with how much a team-mate and the team means to you. Ask us.

The engine room

The staff at this club are obsessed with perfection. The gaffer and his team of coaches are always looking to squeeze every bit of effort out of the boys. They are always making sure the intensity never drops, and to be able to command that kind of attention and respect from the lads is not easy. But when the boys see how much they are putting in, on the field and off it, it makes us want to respond.

The backroom staff have been simply phenomenal and we can see how all their efforts come together and affect our results on the pitch. The owners and management have been encouraging too, and it’s really important to enjoy the kind of faith they have in us. It isn’t the story at every club and it can get rather frustrating as a player. But not once have we been put under any sort of pressure to chase silverware like it was the only reason this club was founded.

Faith in the young ones

An important aspect of our title triumph and one that needs to be highlighted as often as possible is the role played by the club’s young players. The kind of faith the gaffer instilled in our under-22s and the manner in which they responded will always be an important chapter in the championship-winning story. We had as many as seven under-22 boys in the squad and none of them was on it just to make the numbers. Many of them were handed regular starts and saw out complete games while others were thrown in at crucial junctures to change the outcome of a game — and they even did.

It took a goal from young Daniel Lalhlimpuia, 18, to break the jinx against Mumbai FC who we had never beaten until that night at the Kanteerava Stadium. Malsawmzuala, also 18, struck a 30-yarder to make it 3-1 against East Bengal and give us a cushion that would prove vital in our quest for the title. Udanta Singh had a training stint with the English League Two side, Oxford United FC, in the summer and he has added so many aspects to his already exciting style of play — something the team benefited a lot from.

The goals apart, the youngsters have been phenomenal every step of the season and have been our pride at Bengaluru FC.

The Blue Army

I’ve left an aspect close to my heart for the last — the fans. It was a very special feeling to win the title in front of them, given the heartbreak we suffered at home last season. Like us, they too were gutted but made sure to applaud us off the pitch. They stayed with us. We wanted to do this for ourselves and them because they deserved it. When we were handed the trophy in Siliguri, I went and handed it to the 17 fans who made the rather laborious journey to watch us being crowned champs. You could see what it meant to them. When we arrived in Bengaluru the following night, we were welcomed the way champions should be — with chants and songs by so many fans that came to receive us. Again, I handed them the trophy and took a step back to watch their joy and it is a memory, a picture that I will always keep with me.

The fans have been beyond brilliant, regularly creating match-day atmospheres that have been spoken of through the country. However, the crazy home support apart, it warms my heart to see fans travel to away games — a very rare phenomenon in Indian football. Goa, Mumbai, Shillong (we had one girl fan who made the trip!), Pune and Siliguri — name the away venue and we had away support. I don’t know if they realise it, but our fans have had a very big role in us lifting the trophy.

To cap it all, this triumph was very sweet considering how close we came last season. The title is something we wanted as soon as that disappointing night ended last season. The pursuit of it troubled us for a while, but we soon pulled ourselves together and went about the task with one single motivation: to bring back what we gave away. It was only fitting that our coronation was complete at Mohun Bagan’s home.

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