With a renewed vigour and tactical supremacy, Chennaiyin FC became one of the most successful teams in the history of the Indian Super League, winning the title in the fourth edition of the tournament, two years after it had first laid its hands on the silverware.
For Chennaiyin FC, 2017-18 is one of the most important seasons. The team had been at both ends of the spectrum before — it was the champion in 2015 and finished seventh, from a field of eight teams, in 2016.
After a disastrous campaign in 2016, Chennaiyin FC needed an able manager who, like an experienced sailor in rough seas, could help the team weather the storm. Filling Marco Materazzi’s shoes wasn’t going to be easy, but the Chennaiyin FC management reposed its faith in John Gregory. The Englishman, after all, had the experience of coaching teams in England’s top flight football (he had coached Aston Villa, Queens Park Rangers and Derby County). Besides, the 63-year-old coach knew the nuances of developing a champion team.
The best possible combination
The groundwork for Chennaiyin FC’s recovery started immediately after its appalling campaign in 2016. After identifying Gregory to helm the team, it clinically went about picking the best possible combination at the player draft. Acquiring several promising youngsters like Jerry Lalrinzuala, Anirudh Thapa and Germanpreet Singh was a big boost. The club also persisted with the services of ace striker Jeje Lalpekhlua and signed up Henrique Sereno, who was part of the title-winning ATK team in 2016 — moves that paid rich dividends in the end. Chennaiyin FC believed in Sereno’s talent and even handed him the captain’s armband.
In the end, these were the names that were constantly in the limelight and led Chennaiyin FC to the title.
Chennaiyin FC’s gameplan was simple and straightforward: playing effective and efficient football. The management went for bargain buys instead of expensive stars, and Chennaiyin FC ended up as one of the teams with the lowest budget (approx Rs. 13 crore). The team instead focussed on strengthening its talent pool.
Gregory had a job on hand — to change what his predecessor Materazzi had instilled in the team. The former World Cup winner’s style of defending was almost extinct. While the Italian emphasised on the physical style, the team couldn’t cope with the demands it entailed, and the fortunes of Chennaiyin FC declined.
It wasn’t easy for Gregory to pull the plug on Materazzi’s style. He had to keep the aggression of the team intact while changing formations and strategies. In the first season, Materazzi’s strategy was to score one more than what the opponent would score. Although Chennaiyin FC topped the league, the strategy also meant that it had the worst defensive record — a fact that would come to haunt the team in the semifinals. Chennaiyin FC was knocked out by Kerala Blasters with a goal in the dying minutes.
Where Gregory scored
Another difference between Gregory and Materazzi was the Englishman’s trust in home-grown players. While many of the Indian players — like Dhanapal Ganesh for instance — didn’t get a game under Materazzi, Gregory gave the home-grown players maximum time on the field. The coach also kept faith in his defenders, unlike his predecessor, who went in with a new combination almost every match. The fact that of Chennaiyin FC’s scoring, 16 goals came from Indian players as against 14 by foreigners underlines the faith Gregory had in the domestic players.
The beautiful game is an analogy of life itself. Adversity and failure provides valuable life lessons and unearths new-found abilities - to tackle the challenges that lie ahead.
And Chennaiyin too, when pushed against the wall, learnt to fight back.
In their first match of the season, against FC Goa, Gregory’s men were at sea, losing the plot during the initial 45 minutes. Just when it seemed the ghosts of the previous season had come to haunt the club, the players came back strongly to script one of the most beautiful moments of the game. They showed that they were made of sterner stuff. During the break, Gregory gave his boys a pep talk that instilled self-belief in each of them, and the team came out firing on all cylinders. Chennaiyin FC went about its business like a well-oiled machine, pumping in two goals and almost taking a point from the match. Though it didn’t win the match, the lessons the players learnt from the game went on to change the way Chennaiyin FC played the rest of its fixtures. In quite a few of its matches, Chennaiyin FC found itself behind but came back fighting to win.
Down by a goal against ATK, in an away game, it scored twice in the second half to pocket full points. In Bengaluru, Chennai boy Dhanapal Ganesh stood up to the challenge and helped Chennaiyin FC bag full points.
It was this spirit that Gregory highlighted before the title clash. “My team has the attitude to keep going until it’s over. We have never-say-die attitude,” he had said.
Chennaiyin FC’s dominance stems from the fact that it has a balanced midfield, where the best of matches are decided. Anirudh Thapa, Bikramjit Singh, Dhanapal Ganesh, Gregory Nelson and Raphael Augusto have been a revelation in the middle. Chennaiyin FC stuck to its ‘core group’, which made the coach’s job easy, as the players knew their roles in the team’s gameplan. While Bikramjit and Dhanapal responded to the coach’s faith in style, Germanpreet, Anirudh and Jerry sizzled in the limited opportunities they had. The fact that Nelson and Augusto had multiple players marking them speaks volumes of their talent. Yet, Chennaiyin FC won most of its battles in the midfield.
That 13 of Chennaiyin FC’s goals came from headers and nine from set-pieces shows how well the team adapted to the Englishman’s style of play. Karanjit Singh too pulled off some gravity-defying saves between the sticks.
Vibrant fan base
A sport is nothing without its fans. The ISL has given the ardent football fans a sense of ‘home club’ and oneness. The birth of Chennaiyin FC gave the fans in Tamil Nadu, and Chennai in particular, the opportunity to support a local club. A loyal fan base is one of the pillars of strength for Chennaiyin FC. While one section of the fans rechristened itself as the ‘B Stand Blues’ another group called ‘Super Machans’ backed the team to the hilt.
The fan base was so loyal and energetic that Materazzi and his team had dedicated the 2015 title to the fans, in the aftermath of the floods in Chennai. It was during this period that nearly 12,000 fans came to the Nehru Stadium braving inclement weather to support Chennaiyin FC against Mumbai City FC in a league game. For the 2017-18 ISL final in Bengaluru, around 1,500 Chennaiyin FC fans made a dash to the Kanteerava Stadium to support the ‘underdogs.’ In the end, the team, led by diminutive striker Jeje, paid tribute to the travelling fans and thanked them for the support.
“It is always amazing to win the trophy for the club and for the fans. I am proud to see the fans travelling from Chennai to watch us play. This trophy is for them,” he said.
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