Bengaluru Began The Season With A Draw, And Then Another, And Then One More For Good Measure. Like A Sprinter Who Felt His Spikes Cling On To The Starting Blocks, Carles Cuadrat And His Men Lost Crucial Ground On A Race That Had Barely Started. They Even Clipped A Few Metal Frames Along The Way. But As The Race Turns Into Its Home Stretch, They Still Find Themselves With The Peloton…
‘When the dust clears and it all starts to disappear,
It may get harder ’cause you just restarted.
So wherever you are, land on another star,
It may get harder ’cause you just restarted.’
– Dust Clears, Clean Bandit
Drag the rickety chair to the wall, make a little laboured climb and unhook the plates from the roll of honour. Then blow the dust off it and hold the inscribed plaque at a distance for a quick little glance. Quick and little. None of that turning back the clock and time-traveling charade. Step down, but keep the furniture handy. It’s been that kind of a season at Bengaluru FC.
When the Fortress was inching toward its two-year anniversary of standing tall without being breached, Mumbai City FC altered the invitation card to an obituary. On that same night, the club from the island city nicked another first in becoming the only team to do a double on the Blues in the same season. It took ATK two seasons and a little more, and then some Christmas intervention to have their own first over Bengaluru – a win. In this carnival of breaches, Kerala Blasters wanted in on the raffle, struck the right digits and walked away with the bounty they had aged considerably while craving for. Turns out inevitability stretches beyond just death and taxes.
The swarm wasn’t rapid. The yellow shirts that fluttered on plastic hangers outside the stadium weren’t selling quite like they used to either. The pandemonium of yesterday was missing as traffic passed by the JN Stadium, seldom causing heads to swivel. There was little need to. Eight ramps had to be conquered before the door to the Media Box came into sight and entry, this time, gave us a view of a stadium that resembled a coliseum draped in yellow (albeit mostly just empty seats).
This had been a happy hunting ground for Carles Cuadrat and his men. In two previous visits, Bengaluru had taken everything on offer, sometimes leaving it late to sniff out the last frayed string of hope that remained for the hosts. Social media that had gone into whirlwind mode ahead of games would suddenly turn to calm but on Saturday night, the pattern flipped. There was little banter, no questions asked, no tall claims made or food choices questioned. The air of uncertainty that clouded the fixture had made its way into mobile phones and tablet screens. Sense, it seemed, had prevailed.
The fireworks burned as bright as they always had and the long walk from the tunnel hadn’t given or taken an inch either, but on that Saturday night, something else changed. The rub of the green evaded Bengaluru, and true to his word, Eelco Schattorie and his notebook concocted what would be Kerala Blasters’ first winning formula against the Blues.
Bengaluru began on the prowl, but Udanta’s stab poked wide with the frame at his mercy. With Erik Paartalu dropping deep in what was a five-man defence, Suresh Wangjam was tasked with passing the ball forty yards on occasion. He’d confessed that his upbringing as a footballer at the Birchandra Memorial Sports Club involved him playing down the flank, but no one had braced for his pass for the opener (much lesser those in yellow). As the clock ticked down to fifteen minutes, Suresh stole possession (as he does), and flipped the switch on his short passes to clip a diagonal straight to the feet of Deshorn Brown.
In the moment, Udanta’s pace down the flank had seemed the better route but with Bilal Khan expecting it to bounce into his hands and the Jamaican on the prowl, the other was equally appealing. Brown’s touch sucked the ball to the turf and as it slid down, the striker followed it without breaking his stride and slotted home.
On the Wednesday before, Brown had three numbers next to his name on the scoresheet, Semboi Haokip had four. More than a few records had been set on the night, and Cuadrat wasn’t letting one be forgotten. ‘I have been hearing the critics who say that Bengaluru only score from set-pieces, but tonight we scored eight goals from open play. It’s all about dynamics.’ True to his word, the Blues carried momentum from Kanteerava to Kerala, and didn’t need the referee or his spray to find the net for the opener.
Bengaluru lurked in search of a second, but Udanta put the brakes on a run when he shouldn’t have and would soon pay the price in full. Bartholomew Ogbeche’s piledriver from a set-piece had enough fizz packed with it to evade Gurpreet’s dive and attempt to save. Extra-time over injury time had been played, and the Blues had conceded at the worst possible moment that was available to them.
Back in the garden city, Sunil Chhetri watched live telecast from his couch at home and Juanan Gonzalez did with little Noa and Joel on either lap at the club apartments. The Spaniard’s absence needed more than just filling as Cuadrat added an extra man at the back in Kerala, while a combination of tight muscles and accumulated cautions meant that even a strapped-up skipper wouldn’t be allowed to feature.
Kerala came out, and in rampant fashion. Less than half an hour into a second period of long punts, the hosts took the lead. With Albert Serran grappling with more than just Raphael Messi-Bouli and his shirt, the Blues gifted Kerala and Ogbeche a shot on target, this time from the spot; one the Nigerian would take with both arms. It was a goal that Kerala would then protect until the end.
At the sound of the final whistle, Cuadrat marched to the home dugout where Schattorie sat with his notebook, flanked by officials who celebrated three massive points in their race to seventh place. We can only assume that it was disbelief in his achievement that prompted Schattorie to sit as he returned the boss’ handshake.
On the day they claimed what certainly seemed like their biggest achievement in recent years, Kerala Blasters fans rejoiced. As Bengaluru players marched into their dressing room, they were forlorn faces and rightly so. But those were faces that would soon march out towards an Indian Super League semifinal for a third season on the trot.
In the bus on the way back to the team hotel, Gurpreet glanced away from the window and said to no one in particular. ‘Chhetri bhai would have known. I could have stopped that penalty.’ The big man’s little discussions with the skipper at the Fortress had helped save from Mohammad Larbi and Marko Stankovic in the not so distant past.
Defeat to Kerala was just another first, but one that the Blues and their faithful had known and dreaded would come – sooner rather than later. But so was the defeat to Mumbai City FC that ended an undefeated streak at the Fortress. As was the defeat to ATK at the vast expanse of the Yuva Bharati Krirangan in Kolkata. It was a loss at the Mumbai Football Arena that had made Jorge Costa’s side the first to claim a double over Bengaluru. Cuadrat’s men even had to resign to the uncomfortable reality of occupying a spot below the summit for the first time in the Indian Super League.
It seemed for a moment there that the future looked uncertain, but that isn’t the case. In their quest to become the first team to retain the crown, Bengaluru delved deep into a season of firsts that they hadn’t quite planned for. Chief among them being what felt like the final straw that fell at a relatively quiet JN Stadium, in Kochi. But, as history suggests, all good things come to an end. And despite ending, more recent history does suggest that not much may be lost at all.
The result was either catastrophic or rhapsodic, depending on the colour of the shirt you had pulled on that night. But for Cuadrat, it was about how well his team could take on board an instruction and then go about executing it. For better parts of the game and on a fair few portions of the pitch, the Blues had done well. And before we’re charged with bias, the praise came from the man who sank them on the night. Ogbeche had walked up to the boss and, in fluent Spanish, told of how his boys with their plans had made life difficult for him.
The day after and in training for an incoming AFC Cup playoff in the Maldives, Gurpreet’s tip over the bar looped over and into a villa nearby. Kit man Girish was tasked with retrieving the ball, and his return brought with it the NIVIA and laughs. ‘Great game yesterday, but you people need to start putting the ball in the goal more often in training, rather than in my front lawn. Maybe then you’ll start making your way up that table,’ said the owner as he popped the ball over his property. The Blues had trained at the Kerala Blasters training facility.
The gentleman may have got the team wrong, and Bengaluru had done enough to climb to a portion of the table that mattered. But his counsel was taken on board. We might even do well to borrow the chair he was sitting on, because the wall has space for the kind of plaque that resides on it permanently.