I-League: Gokulam’s remarkable turnaround

The induction of the talented Bahraini midfielder Mahmood Al-Ajmi has been one of the main reasons behind the Gokulam’s transformation.

Bino George at a training session with Gokulam Kerala FC.   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Till a couple of weeks ago, watching Bino George meet the press inside a stuffy hall of the Corporation Stadium here was something only a sadist would enjoy.

Here was this amiable, chubby chap, trying his best to hide his pain and embarrassment, offering explanations for Gokulam Kerala FC’s latest loss. You didn’t need to be as intuitive as Google to guess what the coach would say: “We are a new, inexperienced side; we don’t have good foreign players; our rivals have fantastic foreign players; our budget is not even half of what most clubs have...”

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But, it all has changed.

Bino smiles a lot during his press conferences now. He even cracks jokes, when enquired on rumours about his own sacking.

And if he looked a bit embarrassed on Saturday, that was only when a reporter asked him about his little dance at the ground after the winning goal was scored against East Bengal.

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That win came right after shocking Mohun Bagan in Kolkata. To score two of the biggest upsets in the history of I-League in back-to-back matches is no small feat; especially for a team formed only a year ago.

It lost five games in a row and had to wait for a couple of months for its maiden victory at home.

Gokulam had shown signs of a turnaround even before that 3-2 win over Shillong Lajong. In the previous home match, it was distinctly unlucky to lose 2-3 to Churchill Brothers on account of a debatable penalty in the injury time of the second half.

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In its next game, it defeated Chennai City at Coimbatore. Remarkably, it has won four of its last five games.

The induction of the talented Bahraini midfielder Mahmood Al-Ajmi has been one of the main reasons behind the Gokulam’s transformation. He is not just the team’s playmaker but is bankable in set-piece situations with his curling free-kicks.

He is probably the best foreign recruit Gokulam has made. A pity he was signed only in the second half of the league.

Another late singing that has made the team stronger is Ugandan Henry Kisseka. “He is the sort of foreign striker I have been looking for right from the start,” says Bino. “He has made a huge difference.”

Besides Ajmi and Kisseka, what, does he think, are the other factors that have suddenly made Gokulam a nightmare for the giants of I-League? “Experience, for one,” says Bino, who could take credit for Gokulam’s amazing run. “Many of the young players in the side had no clue about I-League. Now they know how to compete at this level. Our strategy to play attacking football regardless of the match situation has also helped.”

Young home-grown talents like Kivi Zhimomi and Arjun Jayaraj have been impressive too.