Recovering lost glory

Elated Mohun Bagan players with the I-League trophy.-PICS: K. MURALI KUMAR

Bello Rasaq’s towering header ensured there would be a national champion from Kolkata after 11 years, when East Bengal last won it in the 2003-4 season. “This is a victory for Bengal football,” the Mohun Bagan head coach Sanjoy Sen said after his side’s triumph. By Shreedutta Chidananda.

It was a sweet return to the summit of Indian football for Mohun Bagan, which claimed its first I-League title. The iconic Kolkata side had last claimed the National League (precursor to the I-League) 13 long years back. It took a goal four minutes from time to earn Bagan the draw it needed and break Bengaluru FC hearts in the rain at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium. The home team had taken a first-half lead through John Johnson and would have defended its I-League crown had it held on for victory.

As it was, Bello Rasaq’s towering header ensured there would be a national champion from Kolkata after 11 years, when East Bengal last won it in the 2003-4 season. “This is a victory for Bengal football,” the Bagan head coach Sanjoy Sen said afterwards. “It’s a great feeling. I was just praying to God to give us the trophy, for the sake of our fans, who have been waiting for a long time. I dedicate this trophy to all the supporters who have travelled a long distance to watch us play here.”

A large number of Bagan fans, many of whom had journeyed from Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad, had gathered in one corner of the stadium. They erupted in celebration at the final whistle, with many shedding tears of joy.

Bengaluru FC was the dominant team for large parts of the game, but Bagan launched repeated attacks, refusing to give up despite a number of near misses. Ultimately, it was that spirit that led the team to glory. The BFC head coach Ashley Westwood refused to accept that his side had finished second best.

“We pressed really hard, we battled hard, throwing bodies in on tackles. We were controlling the game. We weren’t playing fantastic football, but we did what we needed to do, playing the elements, the wet pitch, the thunderstorm. Four minutes is a cruel way to lose something. I don't think we deserved it. Some huge decisions in the game never seemed to go our way,” he said.

Westwood sprang a surprise by excluding Sunil Chhetri from the starting eleven and bringing him only in the game’s dying minutes. It was a baffling move, but the Englishman had his reasons. “The team I selected was the strongest team to win the game and we were four minutes away from doing that,” he said. “We needed more pace wide, which is why we selected Udanta Singh. We knew it was going to be a set piece game, which is why we needed the two big strikers (Robin Singh and Sean Rooney), to deal with their set pieces, because they’re a big side. We handled their danger players well — Sony Norde, Katsumi Yusa and Balwant Singh. We kept them quiet and they scored off a set piece.”

Mohun Bagan players soak in the adulation of the supporters at Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru. A large number of Bagan fans, many of whom had journeyed from Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad, erupted in celebration at the final whistle, with many shedding tears of joy.-

Despite the dramatic loss of its I-League crown, the season ought to be seen as a triumph for Bengaluru FC. It advanced to the knock-out stages of the AFC Cup, losing narrowly there, and was four minutes away from defending the I-League title. It is something no Indian team has previously managed. East Bengal reached the semifinals of the 2013 AFC Cup and finished second in the 2013-14 I-League, but the two competitions did not run concurrently like they did this season. It is fair to say that without its AFC Cup commitments, BFC would have won the league at a canter.

Westwood was understandably proud of his players. “We’ve strung 13 I-League games without losing,” he said. “We’ve done enough to win the league. We’ve won games in Asia. We’ve done more than what any other team has done in India by winning the Federation Cup, by almost winning the league, and getting through to the knockout stages of the AFC Cup. We’ve shown strength in depth; we’re growing and getting stronger. This season has been a strong, positive season.”

At one stage in the season, Mohun Bagan led BFC by eight points with a game in hand. But its form fell alarmingly towards the run-in, when it managed only four points from five games during a phase in April and May.

It is to Sanjoy Sen’s enormous credit that Bagan didn’t wilt during the final three matches. He deserves the plaudits, having led a side that finished 19 points off the top last season to the championship this time. “I’m not P.C. Sorcar!” he exclaimed afterwards, when asked what magic he had performed. “I don’t have a wand. I’ve always insisted on playing positive football. I took charge of Bagan just 15 days before the Federation Cup at which time I had very little knowledge about the team. When we lost two matches in the I-League towards the end, the pressure was on us as we were pushed to second position. But, we never stopped believing. We can show our character only after losing a match and that’s what we did in the last few games.”

As heartening as this news is for Kolkata football, there must be concern over the general health of the I-League. The Goan sides, which won all seven titles between 2007 and 2013, faded away this time. Salgaocar finished seventh while Dempo, champion in 2012, was relegated. Churchill Brothers, which had finished second from bottom last season, was excluded from this edition of the I-League for failing to meet the AFC’s stringent licensing criteria.

“If it was up to me I wouldn’t be relegating anybody,” Westwood said. “I would try to keep as many strong teams as possible in the league to make it more competitive.”

The BFC head coach may often sound like he is making excuses but he was more than right this time.