The Fortress – signed, sealed and delivered

It Took Three Painstaking But Perfect Legs Of A Relay Before The Backroom Staff Finally Handed The Baton To Carles Cuadrat And His Boys At The Fortress On Monday Night With 16,000 Watching The Switchover In The Pouring Rain. Football Stayed At The Fortress, And It Needed The Most Patient Of Build-Ups From The Back To Make It Happen…

It was a Thursday that held the uncomfortable promise of dragging on forever. The phones wouldn’t stop going off at the club offices and heads kept popping out between the eight rooms to check if someone would blurt out the words everyone wanted to hear. There was a call from an agent looking to sell us a thirty-year-old ‘wonderkid’ from Nigeria, one from a fan who was convinced we were holding back stock of the third kit and a tensed-sounding rep from our ticketing partners reminding us there were just ten days to the start of our season. It would need SP Balasubrahmanyam to open the evening with Santoshakke in the flesh if the Fortress was to sell even twenty five percent of its capacity.

And then around 4.00 pm, it came. No pleasantries, no prelude, no riders. Just a plain, curt, ‘announce Kanteerava’. The men in shirts, devoid of names on the back, had rolled up their sleeves long before Raphael Augusto had done the same with his shorts on the pitch at the Fortress on Monday night. In what had been a dangerous game of brinkmanship, the staff, the management and every helping hand that came in the way had decided that the advantages of beginning a new campaign at home far outweighed any risk that was calculable.

There is no ledger that tells us how many lunches were skipped, sleeps altered and miles traveled – all in a bid to keep this team at home. While the Blues chipped away on the training field in an attempt to be the best version of themselves on October 21, there were men who knew that the weight of that moment would be a frieze of frustration if their own battle was not won. On that Thursday, it was.

Often accused of glaring inaccuracies bordering on the comical, the weather forecast chose matchday to show the city it had turned a new leaf. Those harmless-looking thunder symbols on phone screens were a misleading representation of the showers that ensued. But this was a show painstakingly put together, and the club staff weren’t going to let anything rain on their parade – literally.

Cuadrat’s side, one of only three in the League without a seventh foreign player, lost two more to the count when Erik Paartalu and Albert Serran limped out of training on different days, leading up the game. They were always going to be big misses, but Bengaluru’s joy at watching the floodlights at the Fortress flicker on for another season was enormous enough to embrace the setbacks. We’re sure that a few failed to notice that the Blues had started the game with one less foreigner in their eleven, and none on the bench.

But would you blame them? Dimas Delgado had his hair bunched together in a pony, lest it get in the way of his wand. There was that Brazilian in blue running his own little carnival in the rain, and there was a Spaniard up ahead who had the biggest shoes to fill. The air was a beautiful yet twitchy mix of anticipation and excitement.

It took less than fifteen minutes for Ashique Kuruniyan to show the kind of pace that would have even the Flash looking over his shoulder nervously in a race. Picking the ball up inside his own half, the lad with an awkward-looking glide cruised past his marker, showed it to Reagan Singh and then left him in a knot. He then successfully tempted Kai Heerings to lunge, leaving him stuck in the turf before marauding ahead with the goal in sight. Some would say he would have done well to square his pass, but you couldn’t possibly hold it against him for wanting to mark his debut with a goal he created sans allies. Through the ninety and a little more, Ashique was indefatigable, weavings his way through crowds to find himself at the end of his own passes. And in those moments, the West Block christened their newest hero, and even had a hymn to complete the baptism.

Bengaluru went full throttle at NorthEast, but had cramped fingers when it came to pulling the trigger. Manu Onwu, meanwhile, had unwanted company in a Croatian and a Dutchman when all he wanted was a little alone time with the ball.  But even then, the Highlanders, with Robert Jarni on the touchline and Asamoah Gyan up front, could barely shift out of second gear. So much so that the Ghanaian wondered whether he’d worn what weren’t his shooting boots. It would have hurt, but we’d have termed it poetry when we saw him put the ball in the back of the net moments after changing his footwear on the touchline in front of us. But the off-side rule has the uncanny ability reducing golden moments to sawdust.

It would be a shame if we reduced Augusto’s performance to just a carnival, which is why we’re circling back to the Brazilian who gave every visiting player a detailed view of the intricacies of his fluorescent green boots before ushering the ball forward in search of a teammate. Everyone’s familiar with the ‘three cups, coin under one, cups shuffled, non-blinking audience tracking that one cup, shuffling halts, audience points at the cup with the coin, no coin’ routine, right? That was pretty much what Augusto was pulling off with the ball.

It seemed his influence was rubbing off on Nishu Kumar too, who was dropping shoulders and lifting balls over the NorthEast defence from the right flank. Along with Delgado, Augusto formed what one could call football’s version of ‘The Prestige’. The man from Rio de Janeiro scanned his surroundings like a member of the armed forces, eyeing the perfect moment for a targeted saturation. On two occasions, he nudged a delicately weighted ball through for Udanta and then Manu, after pressing the pause and the play buttons on his own little foray into the opposition half.

The midfield had done enough to force the opener, but Udanta gave the ball boy reason to run the distance to the North Lower instead, while Onwu saw his touch allow Heerings to get close enough and deal with the danger.  The Blues had surveyed the stage and drawn all the right lines for 45 minutes, but when they stepped back to watch the outcome, the perfect picture failed to appear.

Delgado came out in the second half and introduced his boots to undiscovered blades of grass, playing twice as many passes as any NorthEast player, moving into space that didn’t exist and clipping diagonals while taking a grip of things in the middle, but it simply wasn’t enough. And then in one swift moment of miscommunication, the Blues were almost taught a lesson of their own.

Chhetri, trying to find Manu with the dummy, saw the ball roll to Nikhil Kadam instead. The winger fed Martin Chaves, who drove forward sensing a rare NorthEast opportunity. Boxed in by Nishu, Delgado and Bheke, the Uruguayan lifted it over for Gyan who had managed to slip into the box undetected. Judging Juanan’s attempted recovery, and knowing where to find an inch to get his shot away from experiences in six different countries, Gyan took a touch with either foot and sent the ball whirring past the Spaniard and the 6’6’’ frame of Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. Bengaluru were beaten, but the freshly painted horizontal of the goal frame chose to take one for the team.

The heavens seemed to relent, but when Eugeneson Lyngdoh was asked to put an end to his routine down the touchline, the showers had to return. Dramatic welcomes, and all that. And in that chilly pelter, Carles Cuadrat and his midfielder managed to share a warm moment. On another October night, he had whipped in the set-pieces to send his side to the Promised Land in Asia. Three years and two days on, the prodigal son had returned.

Lyngdoh had his chances, with Ashique and Udanta winning corners that set up an opportunity for us in the Media Box to finally clamp down on a headline. But NorthEast United had bolted the door, propped a table against it from the inside and even pulled the curtains on the windows. Nishu’s left-footed volley was as sweet as anything we’d seen on the day, but Subhasish Roy Chowdhury, with his left hand, pulled off a save and the plug from the speakers that were ready to boom Santoshakke.

Monday night at the Fortress was an oxymoron. Like when Erik Paartalu had the joy of seeing an Indian Super League medal dangling below his neck, but without football boots on. Or when Albert Roca was flung into the air on a hot evening in Dhaka, having sent his Blues into the knockouts of an Asian campaign he would play no further part in. Much like John Johnson wearing the armband to lift a Cup for the last time in Blue.

On a day when football finally returned to the Fortress, the spoils had to be shared. But, for every sigh and every lament, it must be remembered that football had returned. And to the Fortress.

It’s a bittersweet symphony, this life.