The ‘one’ that mattered

Carles Cuadrat Had A Smile On His Face When He Sat Down Commune With The Press On Saturday Night. To Many It Had Seemed Like Two Points Dropped, But To Him, The One They Left The Pitch With Outweighed Every Other That His Side Had Gained Through The Season…

Fifteen minutes had passed at the International Hotel in Dhaka where Albert Roca waited patiently for a taxi that would take him to his last pre-match Press Conference as Head Coach of Bengaluru, ahead of a clash against Abahani Dhaka. With the Spaniard twitching on a plush sofa in the lobby, we threw a question his way. Our intentions then, were purely to bide time. Small talk, as they label it. But soon after, the cab was made to hang around, as the boss refused to acknowledge its evident arrival. He was in the middle of recollecting a memory so fond that we’re certain it was playing out with all the colours intact, in his head.

‘What was it like when Messi first played for the first team?’ He smiled, the glint in his eyes matching the chandeliers in the lobby for brightness.

“It was pre-season and Barcelona were playing a Ukrainian team at the Mini Estadi. The younger players would wait on the wings, and it was never a guarantee that any of them would get a chance. But they had to be there, all kitted up and ready, just in case.”

His years at La Masia had seen several of Barcelona’s superstars come through, and chief among them was a boy from Rosario who we will not even attempt introducing lest we incur the risk of sounding ignorant. But on that day, he did. With Ludovic Giuly needing replacement down the right flank, Frank Rijkaard turned to his trusted assistant for help and Roca, swift in his decision, asked Messi to boot up. But with hair that curled at his shoulders and freckles peppered across his face, the Dutchman wasn’t impressed with the young Argentinean’s physical appearance.

“I asked Leo to get ready and when he came to the touchline, Frank looked at me and shouted, almost angrily; ‘Sietemesina!’  He said to me that Leo looked seven months premature! But then he went on and ran the show. That little boy kept getting kicked, but he kept going on. When the game ended, Giuly came over to me with his boots in his hands and said that I had ended his career during pre-season. He later said that Messi was like an ‘alien’.”

It is no real mystery that this love for youth football and progress through the ranks rubbed off on Carles Cuadrat, Roca’s right-hand man for over a decade. Chief among his targets for every season is the need to be consistent. And if results didn’t go his way, then his boys were only expected to be consistent enough to allow his younger players a run out at the end of the campaign. The scenario had arrived at the JRD TATA Sports Complex last season where a bright start took a turn for the worse in a 5-1 defeat. On Saturday, it came at the Fortress against ATK.

Gursimrat Singh Gill and Sairuat Kima had started on that night in Jamshedpur, Parag Shrivas was one of only three outfield players on the bench, and played just over half an hour. Leon Augustine had not been registered for the competition. For a year since, these boys had spent hours toiling on the much-abused and unforgiving turf at the BFS. They’d picked up the BDFA Super Division Title, laid their hands on the Puttaiah Memorial Cup and then defended their local League title, just because they could. In Naushad Moosa, they had a coach who had seen his share of youngsters come through the ranks. Ashique Kuruniyan and Rahul Bheke are just two who will more than just testify.

But from Jamshedpur to the Fortress, a lot had changed. Yes, there was a very visible youthful exuberance once again, but there was also an air of experience that shielded it. The Blues were led out by Dimas Delgado, who had seen more pre-seasons than some had seen birthdays. Marshalling the backline was Albert Serran, who made his debut for La Liga before Leon’s parents had considered pre-schooling their child. The boss had trusted his Spanish compatriots more than the others, with Delgado and Serran living dangerously and at risk of missing their semifinal with three yellow cards hanging in the balance.

The boss had calculated long and hard, and chosen to deem it a risk. But it was one he was more than willing to take. On the day before the game, he acknowledged that a positive result wasn’t to be expected; that he was ready to give his younger players a ‘gift’. With an hour left for kick-off, the tables tipped even further when the visitors marked the eleven checks on their team-sheet.

John Johnson was to man the backline while David Williams and Roy Krishna combined in attack. The duo had combined for 19 goals between them through the season. In contrast, Bengaluru’s entire team on the night had scored just three (two of them were from centre-halves). As we walked down the concourse on our way to the tribune, the chatter overheard predicted an onslaught. And we’ll confess that we agreed.

But when the ball was rolled for the first time on the night, there was a kind of pass-and-move incision in the Blue half that brought a smile to Cuadrat’s face down by the touchline. The instructions were bellowed from the back and followed in attack. Delgado held the strings together as he pranced around the park, exchanging passes with every player that came his way. Leon had Victor Mongil on his toes and Parag Shrivas wasn’t afraid to make his way forward. Just eighteen minutes in, the full back won a free-kick.

It seemed for a moment that ATK had covered every route to goal. Williams marked Khabra at the edge of the box as six red and white shirts covered six blue ones inside the box. ATK’s three other outfield players stood on their toes in a wall, making life difficult for Delgado. But the Spaniard stepped up, sold a dummy with a raise of his hand and sent the ball fizzing goalward. It wasn’t expected, and a weak attempt to save the ball ended with it crashing in off the crossbar.

Delirium overtook everything in that moment as Gurpreet Singh Sandhu celebrated with his hands on his head, Erik Paartalu failed to control what was a burst of laughter. In the Owner’s box, Sunil Chhetri stood up and simply applauded what was a touch of genius. Delgado had spent hours curling the ball into crowds in the box through pre-season, in training and then throughout the campaign. The moment had arrived, and as he wheeled away to the West Block, he had made it his own.

In the middle meanwhile, Khabra sensed everyone’s intentions. The midfielder had spent many of his days off watching the B Team perfecting their craft, en route to picking his daughter up from school near the club offices. He knew more than most the edge of the radar that would let Leon latch on to a pass, and the knowledge came to use when the Blues doubled their lead.

Just minutes earlier, Leon had floated a ball into the box with no one in Blue to aim for, and the boss hadn’t taken too kindly to the action. The winger was asked to use his pace to get in behind the backline, and like clockwork, it happened. Khabra lifted one over and Leon turned on his turbos. Pushing a bouncing ball forward, the boy from Calicut left Mongil for dead before cutting it back just as it bounced on the touchline. Away from the action, Frater had halted his run to peel away from Johnson and Salam Ranjan Singh, before a shot that went past Dheeraj in a flash. Two-nil, Bengaluru.

With no fixture pile-up to deal with, ATK had handed run outs to many of their key players. Up against a severely rested Bengaluru side, the game was to serve confidence on a plate for Krishna and co., but nothing was given. Bengaluru held a sizeable lead heading into the tunnel, and Cuadrat conceded later that he was surprised by the advantage.

The spring in their step was evident when the men in Blue jogged out for a second half. Dimas tipped his hat to the West Block and made way for Suresh Wangjam, putting the lid on a performance that not only saw him score a goal, but also make sure his slate remained clean enough not to be suspended for the semifinal. As the faithful heaved a sigh of relief, Cuadrat threw another risk into the fray. Big Erik Paartalu entered the pitch with three yellow cards on his roster.

Habas had thrown Edu Garcia into the mix, and the Spaniard was no stranger to the Fortress. Edu had scored Bengaluru’s first ever goal in the Indian Super League, and it was no surprise that he was the one that popped up with ATK’s first on the night. Picking the ball up in midfield, Edu had created the visitors’ first real chance of the evening with a belter from distance soon after arriving, and then took matters into his own hands with five minutes left on the clock.

A give-and-go with Roy Krishna was followed up with a give-and-go with David Williams before the Spaniard found himself in space and unmarked inside the area. His shot was angled just wide enough to evade Prabhsukhan and his dive, and find its way into the back of the net. ATK sensed a turnover and it would soon come.

With tired legs in the box positioning themselves for what could be the final attack, the only fresh pair chose to play it quick. Edu found Michael Soosairaj with a pass that Suresh failed to close down, and Leon was left biting the dust before a shot that took the heaviest of deflections off Gursimrat before looping over his brother.

There was little that could be done as the Blues went into the showers with a point to show for a performance that deserved more. Cuadrat appreciated the effort from the boys and those in the stands. Asked if he valued this point over the 29 others his side had claimed on the road to the playoffs, the boss took a moment to answer.

“That is a good question. Maybe, yes. As a coach, I know the risk I am taking when I play so many youngsters in a game. We saw what happened in Jamshedpur last year. But these boys worked for the point, and I am okay with the point. We played against top professionals with a lot of experience. Albert, Dimas and Erik did the job I asked them to do, but my surprise was from the youngsters.”

On Sunday, the Blues will brawl with ATK again, and then once more. The stakes have sky-rocketed and the heroes from Saturday will, in all probability, take their place in the stands. Some, maybe, on the bench. But when the boss says his last words before his men march to the trenches, he will remind them of the valour the boys wore a week ago. It was a point that didn’t change anything. But it could be a point that changes everything.