Proving the doubters wrong

The man Behind Bengaluru FC’s victory…Coach Ashley Westwood with captain Sunil Chhetri. “If there is one reason for our success, it is Ashley Westwood,” says Chhetri.-PICS: K. MURALI KUMAR

Bengaluru FC’s victory ought to be seen as a seminal moment in the country’s recent football history. It has reinvigorated a largely dull league and brought new fans, writes Shreedutta Chidananda.

As Sunil Chhetri scored, the whistle went, and Bengaluru FC’s frenzied players ran around spraying water over one another, even the Dempo fans couldn’t resist. They stood up and applauded the new I-League champion, where only minutes before there had been barracking and rude words for Robin Singh in particular.

Perhaps the best compliments came afterwards from the Dempo coach, Arthur Papas. “They’ve come into the I-League, set the standard off the field and on it. They actually had more supporters here today than we had and we’re the home team. That shows that in India, you can do very good things in club football if clubs have a vision and are trying to improve,” he said.

“If you see their dressing room before the game, the players are walking in and everything’s fully organised. There are many people in there working, helping to sort things out. That’s the level that comes from overseas.”

Six months before, on the eve of the reverse fixture in Bangalore, Papas had felt less amiably towards the side. “Starting the season with five games in a row at home is a huge advantage for them,” he told Sportstar. “My boys haven’t been given such an easy ride. Have you ever seen Manchester United or Arsenal begin the season this way?”

This is not to suggest that Bengaluru FC has won all its rivals over, but today, few in the country will deny that it deserved to win the I-League. Behind all the glory has been a rock-solid foundation — an organisation that is professional, smart, and fiercely driven.

After Jindal Steel Works, the owner of the club, won its bid to the All India Football Federation for a ‘corporate’ team with direct entry into the I-League, its first step was to put in place a proper administrative structure. The former tennis player, Mustafa Ghouse, who represented India in the Davis Cup, came on board as the COO. Mandar Tamhane, formerly manager of the national football team, was roped in as a consultant. Ashley Westwood, assistant to Michael Appleton at Blackpool and Blackburn Rovers, where he was inexplicably relieved of his duties after 67 days, was appointed head coach. This — and it would become increasingly apparent in the weeks and months ahead — was one hell of a coup.

Incredible feat... the Bengaluru FC players are jubilant on arrival a the Bangalore Airport after winning the I-League title.-

Pradhyum Reddy, previously a head coach with Shillong Lajong, was appointed as the assistant to Westwood. Reddy, a young coach with a UEFA ‘A’ licence and a mild accent from his time in the UK, had the benefit of being in touch with western training methods, but still held enormous knowledge of Indian players and teams.

Westwood brought in the central defenders, John Johnson and Curtis Osano, former Football League players he had worked with in the UK, who immediately struck up a fine partnership. This core was strengthened when Reddy got the veteran central midfielder Johnny Menyongar, whom he knew from Shillong Lajong. The Australian striker Sean Rooney, who had played for Salgaocar a couple of years ago but had since returned home, also arrived at the club.

“I can comfortably say we have the four best foreigners in the I-League,” Reddy said after the title win. This gave the team an incredibly strong core, making it hard for opponents to find a way through the middle and instead forcing them out wide. Johnson, a Middlesbrough academy product who also made one Premier League appearance for the club, is visibly a cut above the rest of the defenders in the league.

The Indian stars Chhetri — without a club after leaving Sporting Clube de Portugal ‘B’ at the end of his loan spell with Churchill Brothers — and Robin, fortunately still available, were signed on. Then came the young Indian players — ignored, forgotten, or simply out of favour — of the likes of Beikhokhei Beingaichho, formerly of East Bengal, the gifted 20-year-old Siam Hanghal, Thoi Singh, and Keegan Pereira.

“To be cheeky, I’d say other clubs have been silly,” Reddy said. “They’ve let good players go. There were a lot of good players in Indian football other clubs discarded or chose not to sign.”

Westwood brought in professionalism to training methods, something everyone admits is not a quality seen in abundance in Indian football. “Every player has to report an hour and a half early and we have breakfast and lunch together — no excuses,” Chhetri revealed. “We pay fines if we’re not on time. Not to demean anyone but I’ve played in many clubs and not seen this. Have you heard of heart-rate monitors in India? This is all normal European stuff — not as posh perhaps but everything is proper.”

All Westwood — a graduate of the Manchester United Academy — had to say was that he had been asked by the management to set things up the way they were in Europe and he was doing that.

“We work, by far, the hardest throughout this league,” he said. “There are no two- or three-hour days here; it’s a full-time job. I was up at 4 a.m. this morning watching videos. That’s the way football works, especially in England. We’ve brought that work ethic over and that’s a major part of our success. Some of our players normally did not get on till 4 o’clock on some days, so to ask them to come at 8 in the morning was new. We had to explain to them what it takes to be a professional footballer and a winner.”

Fitness was foremost on Westwood’s agenda. Time and again, he pointed out that other teams struggled to match his side’s intensity simply because this was the fittest team in the league. In November, Westwood brought in Malcolm Purchase, a fitness trainer from Wolverhampton Wanderers, who promised to lift the team further physically.

Tactically, Westwood set the side up as a fluid, attacking 4-3-3, with a number of players in roles they were not used to. Chhetri, India’s captain and its most potent goal-scorer, was moved out to the left; Thoi, a winger with Mumbai Tigers, was deployed in the centre of midfield as a ‘runner’ (performing a role not unlike Jordan Henderson’s at Liverpool); Beingaichho, a central midfielder, was switched to the right.

If there was consternation among observers — and there was a lot of it as Chhetri appeared to struggle in the beginning — it vanished as the goals started flowing. The skipper is, with a game left in the season, joint top of the scoring charts with 14. No one is complaining now.

“If there is one reason for our success,” Chhetri said the morning after the Dempo win that delivered the title, “it is Ashley Westwood.”

No appreciation of Bengaluru FC is complete without a mention of the fans, in reaching out to whom the club has done a commendable job. According to the club, the average attendance at home games has been 7000, the crowds young, urbane, and with women and children in large numbers — the sort of demographic more familiar with Steven Gerrard and Cristiano Ronaldo than Subrata Pal and Clifford Miranda.

Tickets are sold online and at coffee shops and pubs, buses are arranged to take fans to away games, match programmes are handed out, games are screened at an upmarket micro-brewery, and there are active Facebook and Twitter accounts. And tickets at home games range from Rs. 50 to 400 for seats with catering.

The response has been enormous. “All the existing clubs, old or new, can take a leaf out of the way BFC has promoted, marketed and positioned itself,” the I-League CEO Sunando Dhar told this reporter. “You may be experienced, you may be 100 years old but football gives you a chance to learn every day. The response from the crowd is a direct impact of that. It has played a very important role in the home matches. And having crowds travelling to away matches — I think it’s happening for the first time in India.”

Bengaluru FC is only the third club from outside Kolkata and Goa to win the first division title since 1996-97 and the southernmost of them all. For a club in the first season of its existence, it is an incredible feat. “I’d have said you were crazy if you said we’d win the league at the start of the season,” Reddy said. “Now we have to reassess our targets.” The club has earned a playoff spot for the AFC Champions League and wants to become — eventually if not immediately — the first Indian team to enter the competition proper.

This victory ought to be seen as a seminal moment in the country’s recent football history. It has reinvigorated a largely dull league and brought new fans (and even found a mention on the FIFA website). The AIFF’s Request for Proposal process, through which Bengaluru FC entered the I-League with insurance against relegation for three years, initially had its doubters, but this success story should induce greater interest in corporate houses. It can only be a good thing for Indian football.