For the third consecutive season, Mohun Bagan finished without any major trophy. Yet, this season was not just marked by poor performances on the field. What made this season even more chaotic were the incessant problems off the field.
Off-field issues started with the Tolgay Ozbey transfer issue. The archaic “token system” in Kolkata maidan meant that East Bengal claimed that Tolgay had agreed to stay another season with them and Mohun Bagan had no right to sign him. Mohun Bagan, on their part claimed poor treatment from IFA and refused to play the first two matches of Kolkata League. Far cry from a club whose official, Dhiren De once said, “If I can’t find enough fit players I’ll give jerseys to workers in the club and put them on the field. Mohun Bagan always plays on the field.”
After a dismal start to the season under Santosh Kashyap, Mohun Bagan once again made a timid exit from Federation Cup after failing to win a single match. As it has become a regular fixture with inept Mohun Bagan officials, the coach was made the scapegoat and promptly sacked. Karim Bencharifa was brought in and more controversy followed as his old club Salgaocar cried foul.
Wheels came off completely on 9th December when Mohun Bagan played East Bengal in Kolkata derby. Stung by a series of decisions against them by the referee both Mohun Bagan players as well as the crowd became enraged and Odafa Okalie lost his temper. He directed his outburst towards Bishnu Chowhan, the referee and was sent off. Poor security provided by administration then came to the forefront, after a tragic incident. The crowd began to launch objects at players and a stone hit Rahim Nabi, who had to be rushed to hospital. Citing lack of security Mohun Bagan refused to take the field in the second half, a punishable offence under I-League rules. What followed was a series of laughable gaffes and diplomatic meltdowns from officials of the two clubs, state government and AIFF. In the war of words between all parties rumours started doing rounds that Mohun Bagan may be banned from I-League for two years. In the end, Mohun Bagan’s reputation and contribution to Indian football in past and their large fan base triumphed. AIFF reached a typically unsatisfactory compromise to keep all parties happy and managing to make none of them actually happy as Mohun Bagan’s points at that point of the season – twelve, were deducted. The club also had to pay Rs. 2 crore as the fine but were allowed to play the rest of the matches.
As the New Year dawned Mohun Bagan showed some glimpses of returning to form, for the first time this season. Karim Bencharifa tried hard to fix defensive lapses and succeeded partially as Mohun Bagan reached IFA Shield semi-final. The Mariners played out a good match against arch-rivals East Bengal but were knocked out after a penalty shoot-out.
The first two weeks of April were the best times Mohun Bagan fans have had in a long, long time. It began with a 2-1 win over Dempo, a team Mohun Bagan had not defeated in I-League in three years. Better things were to follow in next match as an in-form Sporting Clube was dispatched 5-1 in Goa, Mohun Bagan’s best result in the Western state in I-League till date. Two nerve wrecking late wins over Air India and Mumbai FC meant that Mohun Bagan was within touching distance of saving relegation, a prospect that looked daunting after the point deduction. Mohun Bagan’s month long unbeaten streak was snapped after losses against Churchill Brothers and Pune FC but relegation was finally saved after a win against Pailan Arrows.
Mohun Bagan eventually finished I-League in the 10th position with 29 points. If one includes the deducted points, Mohun Bagan would have finished 5th, above Dempo. Slim hopes of silverware were crushed when Mohun Bagan lost the final match of the season in Kolkata league, falling 3-2 against East Bengal. A laughable consolation was the Airlines Gold Cup which Mohun Bagan won by default after Mohammedan SC gave a walkover in final. Some Mohun Bagan fans were even seen celebrating the fact that they saved relegation, showing how far the three time champions have fallen down.
Next season doesn’t seem to be bringing any rays of hope till now. Bengal clubs are now facing an unprecedented financial crisis following chit fund scam and Mohun Bagan officials have completely lost their habit of plucking out hot prospects for cheap, given the excess of money they have enjoyed till date. Mismanagement in the club, coupled with lack of funds may mean that Mohun Bagan will build a weak team next season which may not challenge for bigger titles. In the end, the main reasons for Mohun Bagan’s abject failure were composition of an unbalanced team and a faulty pre-season camp, which resulted in poor fitness. Mohun Bagan’s chief recruiter later resigned from his role taking responsibility of the performance.
Player of the season
How many Mohun Bagan fans thought that Aibor would end up as the most consistent player when the season began? Probably none. Yet, as the season progressed the ex-Lajong defender slowly but steadily grew from strength to strength. Equally adept as both full-back and central defender, Aibor was often the only player performing out of his skin in an often shambolic Mohun Bagan defence. Aibor’s last stint in Kolkata, a 1 year stay in East Bengal, had not went well because of injuries but he remained fit for Mohun Bagan in I-League campaign and played every single minute of the 24 matches he participated in. Karim Bencharifa would need to strengthen his defence for next season and the 26 year old should be one of the pillars around which Mohun Bagan defence should be built. His performance on the last match of the season against East Bengal may have taken some glaze of his performance but nevertheless he was Bagan’s most consistent performer.
“Stan the Man” performed well with Mohammedan in division-2 last season but he found out life in top division was a totally different deal. Stanley was expected to play in multiple positions, from defence to striker. He did just that. Problem was, he struggled in every position and made little or no impact in the matches that he played. By mid-season, Stanley’s constant poor outings meant that Mohun Bagan had to replace him with Quinton Jacobs. Jacobs’ eventual impact proved further what a damp squib Stanley had been.
While he was not as disappointing as Stanley, Jewel Raja also showed worrying signs that he had digressed as a player from last season.
Odafa Okalie, as usual, was one of the stand-out performers. Despite playing under immense pressure from fans which was compounded by his ban and a fear of relegation, Odafa single handedly dragged Mohun Bagan out of tricky situations in multiple occasions. He hardly got service from an insipid midfield at times but still managed to score 19 times and finish as the second highest scorer. Two criticisms that can be leveled at him is that he was selfish at times in front of the goal and his conduct in the ill-fated derby in December wasn’t particularly suited to the arm-band he was wearing. Otherwise, Odafa was one again one of the best players in Mohun Bagan jersey and finished the season with 41 goals in all competitions.
Echezona Anyichie was another surprisingly consistent performer like Aibor. Eche was an absolute rock during Mohun Bagan’s crucial unbeaten run in second half of the season. Possessing a unique record of never being sent off in his entire career, the former Nigerian Junior National was excellent in the air and his anticipation in ground tackles often made a difference between a win and a loss. Quinton Jacobs also made a telling impact after joining in the mid-season. The veteran had fitness issues but whenever he was on the field he made his presence count with his wonderful passing range and ability to retain possession in central midfield.
Syed Rahim Nabi was as always consistent in first half of the season but his form dropped, understandably, in second half of the season. The horrifying experience of 9th December is bound to have a negative impact of the morale of any footballer and Nabi still turned out some decent performances in fag end of the season though his performances in the derby left a lot to be desired.
CS Sabeeth, top Indian scorer of I-League 2011/12 was expected to play a bit role thanks to the presence of Tolgay and Odafa but he eventually found more game time than expected and made good use of it. The former Viva Kerala striker may not have scored many goals in I-League but he was reasonably prolific in Kolkata League. Sabeeth’s hold up play was also important for Odafa and Tolgay to combine with each other in second half of the season as the youngster acted as a foil between two strikers with totally different styles. Sabeeth looks all set to extend his stay in Mohun Bagan and the Green & Maroon fans will be hoping that he improves his flaws, like lack of clinical finishing, going forward and follows the path of Xavier Pious, a highly successful and popular Keralite striker of 1980s. Another Keralite Denson Devadas put out some energetic performances as well.
Sporting Clube 1-5 Mohun Bagan
This was undoubtedly one of the most memorable matches Mohun Bagan has played in the past one decade. Before this match, Sporting was on a seven match unbeaten streak and had risen to sixth in the table. The turning point of this match came in the 37th minute when Dawson Fernandez was sent off. Using the man advantage Mohun Bagan roared into action in second half as Odafa grabbed three goals while Tolgay scored a brace. Till date, no team from Kolkata has managed to score five goals in a single half of football in Goa.
East Bengal 3-2 Mohun Bagan
Don’t be fooled by the scoreline, this match was as one sided as a match could be. Monoranjan Bhattacharya, an East Bengal legend who also played for Mohun Bagan and an aged veteran of the derby remarked in his post match report that he could not remember a derby where East Bengal had dominated more. Mohun Bagan was simply saved by the goal-posts and some heroic saves from Shilton Pal and were lucky to avoid a worse margin of defeat than that of 1975 IFA Shield final. Karim Bencharifa was completely out-coached by Trevor Morgan and the Moroccan made a flurry of costly tactical errors. To make matters worse this match was a bout for Calcutta League title, the only title Mohun Bagan could have won this season. Mohun Bagan not only lost meekly but also had to go through the ignominy of seeing their rivals win a hattrick of league titles.