After HAL was relegated in 2011-12 season, very few would have put their money on a side from the Garden City lifting the I-league title in 2014, and this statement is on the milder side. Before the start of the season, there was a sudden outburst of news that Jindal Steel Works (JSW) backed side, Bengaluru FC had won the bid to win a direct entry into the country’s premier football division- I-League. With only Sunil Chhetri being a marquee name in the squad, the club and its ambitions were obviously not taken seriously by many of their competitors and the fans of the game. But who knew that this club would lay the stepping stone in the way football is treated and percieved in this country. One year later, it would be fair to claim that a certain revolution was on its way !
Bengaluru FC started the season with five home games, on the trot. Coach Ashley Westwood, former assistant at the English side Blackpool, clearly had a plan to clinch maximum points at home. The team responded well, winning four out of their first five games, with an exception of a draw on the opening day against Mohun Bagan. Former Salgaocar reject, Australian striker Sean Rooney came up with the trumps as he scored five goals initially and with some help from John Johnson and captain Chettri, as the team from Bangalore dominated the initial rounds. Apart from the points garnered by the club, a phenomenon raised quite a few eye brows – it was the presence of BFC fans at the Bangalore Stadium.
A lot of pundits and fans of other clubs expected the debutants to lose their beginners luck as soon as they traveled for their matches. Somehow, the team went out to prove that right. The side from the Garden City began to struggle on the road as their three back to back to away games produced a meager point, topped with two defeats. But the side learnt from the mistakes they made in these matches to come back strong. Bengaluru won four games on the trot again, but this time three away from home against Md. Sporting in Kolkata and Salgaocar, Churchill Brothers in Goa. Just like Rooney, this time Indian captain stepped up when it mattered. Chhetri netted a mammoth six goals, including consecutive braces. The Bangalore side maintained their top spot, going into New Year.
The New Year did not start well for Westwood – Reddy mentored side. Federation Cup witnessed the exit of the side in the group stages as the I-League table toppers could only manage a single win against Sporting Goa. East Bengal inflicted a third defeat on the Bangalore side in the group matches. Once it was predicted that the timid performance in the Fed Cup was a clear indication of the gas running out of the Bengaluru FC tanks and the inexperience would get the better of the side. But to the surprise of every single soul which questioned the sides’ ability to swing the tide in their favor, the Bengaluru juggernaut continued to roll.
Albeit the side drew and then lost their opening two matches post the winter break (February), they never gave it away to the other title chasing teams. The month of March was very crucial with respect to their title. With the race heating up, Bengaluru FC notched up two vital wins against Churchill Brothers and United SC. Along with other results falling in their favor, Bengaluru cruised towards making history. Three wins on trot clinched the maiden title for the side from the garden city, triggering massive celebrations in the city. The kind of professionalism the club has induced into the Indian football system is something which has been the key highlight of the club. From the dressing room etiquette, to hotel rooms , to BFC award ceremony, to the massive road parade – everything has been a epitome of professionalism, without any hindrances sponsored by the owners. At the beginning of the season, when most of the big names in the top division had spent a fair share of bucks to sign big names, a club signed a bunch of players, many of whom were rejects from others clubs. Their zeal to prove all their doubters wrong was the main driving force in the clubs’ sensational triumph.
Player of the Season
Albeit the whole team flaunted an array of performers this season, experienced players like Sunil Chhetri, Sean Rooney, Curtis Osano and John Johnson stepped up when it counted the most. But there was a player who was never shy to give his hundred percent week in-week out. Johnny Menyongar, after the termination of his contract with Shillong Lajong he trained with Dempo until last season. The 33 yr old wasn’t retained by the new coach Arthur Papas at the Goan club. It was Bengaluru FC who came knocking at the Liberian’s door, with an opportunity to reclaim his status as one of the top midfielders in the nation. Menyongar was classy with his attack minded approach, orchestrated the moves and did the dirty job of breaking the attacks. In short, he was the go to man in the midfield.
Most Disappointing Player
There were very few players among the squad who could be labelled as a disappointing player. But to make a choice out of the available players, stopper Vishal Kumar would be the one to stand up and raise his hand. At the start of the season, Vishal Kumar looked promising, and he was expected to run the show from the center back position, alongside John Johnson, but somehow the former Pailan star could not impress Westwood and was subsequently sidelined for most of the season. Curtis Osano, who was initially slotted at the right back spot, replaced him at the center to provide more stability .
Other Outstanding Players
Sunil Chhetri became highest goal scorer for the club with fourteen important goals. Kenyan Curtis Osano was the stalwart at the back for the Blues and his performances were duly rewarded at the club’s awards night, where the tall defender received the players’ player of the season award from the owner. Another lethal weapon in Bengaluru FC’s armour was Siam Hangal. A TFA product, he was loaned from the Pailan Arrows to DSK Shivajians, where he played the last season. Siam’s pace has been instrumental in his sides attack the whole season, with one goal against his name. Sean Rooney got the club started in terms of goals in the opening few rounds and it was down to his five goals in the opening 5 rounds, that the club started believing in themselves. The Aussie went on to hit ten eventually. John Johnson was also a tower at the back.
It would definitely go down as a sin of biblical proportions if Bengaluru FC’s 12th man was denied a mention in this section. Apart from all the players who had given almost everything in most of the matches, it was their fans who hogged a fair share of limelight as the season progressed. So much so, during their title clinching match against Dempo in Margao, Dempo coach Arthur Papas hailed the fans who had travelled all the way from Bangalore to witness their side rewrite history books, eventually outnumbeing the home support. A phenomena, which is a forte of clubs from Kolkata, did not only engluf the IT capital of the country, but also sometimes surpassed the bengali version.
When a team become Champions, most of the matches become special but there was a specific game which outlined the grit of this team. The away game at the Salt Lake Stadium against Md. Sporting saw the team from Garden City come back from behind to clinch massive three points. Captain Sunil Chhetri’s brace cancelled Josimar’s double, after Johnny Menyongar had given the visitors a deserved lead. The triumph helped Bengaluru maintain the gap between themselves and other title chasing sides, who were also rejuvenated on various fronts. With this crucial come from behind win, the club stamped their authority at the summit of the table, and re-announced that they meant business.
The eventual champions of the I-league were made a bunny side by East Bengal, as the Kolkata side got the better of the table toppers thrice. Obviously, all of these matches were disappointing from Bengaluru’s perspective. But one match stands out and hurts harder than all. Ashley Westwood’s side came into the Federation Cup came across as a side which will spring some surprises, continuing from where the club had left in the other domestic challenge. They started by clinching all three points in an epic opening encounter against Sporting Clube. After sharing the points with Rangdajied united in the second game, it was a virtual quarter final against East Bengal. Sadly the team from the Garden city was knocked out after a dismal performance which saw both the strikers, Sean Rooney and Sunil Chettri, miss second half spot kicks. Result – an early exit from the Fed Cup.
Sean Rooney v Mohun Bagan