‘I’d like to order a reaction, please’

With The Fortress Vanquished For The First Time In Close To Two Years, The Boss Wanted The Dressing Room To Rebuild, But With Fire For A Foundation. A Retort – One That Would Echo Through The Hills Of The North East – Was The Ask. The Boys Responded And There’s Now A Reverberation To Feed Off…

Bleary-eyed and desperately groping around for the key cards to their rooms, the first bunch of boys arrived at the team hotel in Guwahati. A little later, the second instalment followed. It hadn’t even been forty-eight hours since they had been involved in a five-goal battle of attrition that ended in the Fortress’ first breach in 637 days. And yet, here they were strapping up for a potential encore the next day. The window to mourn was tinted and so small, it was almost non-existent.

If you thought a dagger to the heart in injury-time after two valiant comebacks was the worst possible preparation for an away fixture to NorthEast United, sample this. Slated to depart for the hills on the morning after the game on Sunday, the political unrest in the region cast a spell of doubt on the fixture being called off. Fresh tickets would have to be booked for Tuesday, except flights on the day were almost full, forcing a split in the group. The boys, eventually, got aboard the carrier, but not 180 kilograms of gear that included match kits, massage tables, ball bags and iceboxes. The club staff, that overlooks every piece of checked-in luggage down to the last bag, had to trust the airlines to deliver as they rushed to the congested boarding gates if they were to make it in time. All this at 3.20 am, with a defeat to put behind and a game to win away from home.

The boys claimed the beds were among the softest they’ve ever crashed down on. But they would need a night of calm, more than what they had accounted for.

It wasn’t so much a team meeting as it was a bollocking – to colloquially put it – when Carles Cuadrat had his side grouped together and in front of a projector screen in the conference hall on floor B1. The hotel staff had been warned to go missing from around the floor. Their hospitality wasn’t needed for the next hour. They would have done well to drop a few extinguishers by the door though.

All the plans, patterns and ploys for the day kept bouncing off the screen from the projector as the boys soaked every little detail in. Then just like that, without any prelude, the screen showed that bald, French wizard poleaxe an Italian square in the chest with his head, on the biggest stage of them all. There were a few raised eyebrows in the room. Had the boss mixed up footage? Cuadrat, meanwhile, had his gaze fixed on the screen without flinching. Soon, the screen got grainy and a diminutive Argentine in that gorgeous blue and white striped shirt leapt high to ever so slyly punch his country through to the semifinal of the World Cup. Surely, this wasn’t part of the pre-game meeting. Or was it?

The screen then switched to Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United allowing Aston Villa to walk the ball in from kick-off at Elland Road. A fight to the finish had turned volatile when Mateusz Klich put Leeds ahead with Villa striker Jonathan Kodjia injured and in need of treatment. Albert Adomah’s route to goal saw just one Leeds player put a foot in – Pontus Jansson – and Cuadrat stressed that that was the fire he had hoped his players would show on the night. Villa, now playing Premier League football, and Leeds, still battling for promotion to the top division, put the lid on the presentation and the lesson it had hoped to teach.

By no means was the message that of embracing deceit to achieve the final means. It was simply one of desire. And how the biggest names on the biggest stages are willing to do whatever it takes to prove a point. The boss bellowed his preach, loud and clear. Twenty minutes later, there was an almost-huddle as the Blues spurred themselves through a narrow doorway and onto the team bus.

On what was a nippy evening in Guwahati, Bengaluru left the team hotel well ahead of schedule. The uncertainties in the city meant that even the armed convoy would not be able to guarantee an on-time arrival. Kick-off had been advanced by 90 minutes and so was most other things. Cuadrat’s men sailed smoothly through the city, and over two hours of waiting ensued when they stepped onto the turf at the IG Stadium.

But time hadn’t taken the fire away and from the get-go, Cuadrat’s men were majestic and fearless. There was an eerie semblance of a pre-Victorian crusade to the whole setting, as green shirts set about attacking those in red. A blur of tackles, shoves and yellow cards commenced even before the spectators had taken their seats, and in the haze of it all, Bengaluru kept pushing. Erik Paartalu, hectoring in perpendicular shifts across the centre of the park, picked up the pieces of attacks, and at one point even picked Lalengmawia off the turf by the hem of his shirt, after the youngster feigned death at Dimas’ attempt to win possession.

A half that was peppered with scowls, elbows, and raw adult rage ended without either side achieving the task they had set out to; to find the back of the net. Udanta’s header had cannoned back into play off the crossbar and as the sun’s last rays died, it took the silhouettes of the Meghalayan mountains with it.

We believe there was a second episode of the same stripe as the team-meeting from the hotel when the Blues kicked the soil off their shoes at the break. Cuadrat had earlier stressed the need for a reaction, and the ball ricocheting off the crossbar wasn’t his idea of one. He wouldn’t care if it came from off the backside of someone in a green shirt, the boss wanted the ball in the back of the net.

Not that he needed an incentive, but Udanta was the quickest to Chhetri after the skipper had slotted home the opener from the spot six minutes past the hour mark. Redeem Tlang’s stray arm had come in contact with the ball, and the referee did what he had to. There weren’t any complaints, and Subhasish Roy Chowdhury’s attempts to tease Chhetri into picking a spot were a waste of his time.

The exchanges continued and the team from the hills came close to parity through their German-born Greek striker, who skewed his shot wide. Not long after, Bengaluru had put the staples on the envelope and made the points their own. But before we get there, though, we need to roll it back to two weeks ago, and then to two years ago.

Albert Serran was the man that Cuadrat earmarked for an appearance at a press conference ahead of Bengaluru’s trip to Odisha. The defender arrived fashionably early, and we sat him down for a quick chat. Serran was inches away from finding the back of the net against Kerala the week before and when asked, he said he didn’t remember the last time he scored a goal.

Against Mumbai City FC on Sunday night, Serran came even closer to scoring but what was to be his header, became a Mato Grgic own goal. Though the Spaniard staked no claim, Juanan and Ashique celebrated with him anyway. We’re sure Serran didn’t mind, for it did make for a good picture for his mantelpiece back home. On Wednesday night in Guwahati, he had an even better one. In fact, he had a gallery to choose from.

On the twelfth day of March 2017, Serran and his teammates from Doxa Katokopias FC stepped out for battle against Ermis Aradippou FC. A playoff ensued and Ermis’ Zimbabwean striker Edward Masinwa found the net in the opening stages. Just five minutes later, Serran popped up with the equalizer; a header. (The other scorer for Doxa on the night was former BFC striker Braulio Nobrega. We know it’s irrelevant, but who doesn’t like a bit of trivia?) It was the last time Serran had celebrated a goal that belonged to him.

We’ll drag you back to Guwahati from Cyprus for now where, with less than ten minutes to go, Bengaluru had made their way up the pitch in search of a second. Chhetri’s attempted volley had reduced itself to a stray bullet and NorthEast United fans had made the most of the moment to try and jeer the man who had put their side behind. But the ridicule vanished in a matter of seconds and brows furrowed when the ball fell to Paartalu inside the area. Trapped between his feet, the Aussie had to break into a stride and nudge the ball in the air, where it looped across NorthEast United shirts and founds its way to Serran, who well, for want of a better word, thumped it home with his forehead. Paartalu, meanwhile, had completed a perfect hat-trick of assists; a pass to Semboi against Chennaiyin FC with his right, a header for Juanan to score the winner in Pune and now giving Serran his first goal in over two years with a swing of his left foot.

During the summer, Serran had tattooed a clover on the inside of his left arm. On three of the four leaves, it had the initials M, B and A. They were of his wife, daughter and himself. He celebrated the goal for the team first, shouting in joy before turning to the cameras and planting a kiss on the ink that much alike the memory of celebrating the goal, will forever remain with him.

Bengaluru saw the game through and Juanan was named man-of-the-match, and perhaps deservedly by his own admission. The Spaniard said he believed his performance against Odisha had warranted the accolade, and as they hydrated themselves under the lights in Guwahati, joked that Serran’s award would come on a night when he wouldn’t have played a part.

At the post-match conference, Cuadrat kept the points, the goals and everything else aside, taking a moment to let the members of the media know that the one thing that made him happiest was the return of Federico Gallego to competitive football. The Uruguayan had snapped his leg in two back at the Fortress in March and Cuadrat had been in touch with him ever since.

Back in the dressing room, the boss huddled his boys together for a brief moment and rendered what was more of a war cry. It was a post-match celebration unlike any other when the boss finally spoke. “We have seen teams winning one point against us and celebrating like they have won the Champions League. Tonight, I want everyone to hear everyone shouting. I want everyone to be happy. Let’s make some noise!”

The boss had demanded a reaction, and then another. His boys obliged, twice.