So close yet so far - it has been the tale of Kerala Blasters FC, with them losing two finals and then taking a huge dip as the years rolled on. For arguably one of the biggest clubs in India, they've struggled immensely on the domestic circuit and there are several reasons for their downfall.
Two runners-up finish, that’s all. The last time the ‘sea of yellow’ had something to cheer about was in 2016, following which Kerala Blasters FC always found themselves on the wrong foot. Financially, they were never fragile, nor they were shy to invest - but somehow they never managed to find that perfect blend. If we are talking about the quality of players, the South-Indian side have had the most glamorous contingent on paper for the majority of its six-year history, but big names doesn't fetch you trophies - wins do, which they lacked. Dissecting the matter, the management does needs to take the blame to some extent, for not maintaining stability in their squad and their fickle-minded nature.
For starters, Kerala Blasters have appointed nine coaches in six years, the most by any team in the Indian Super League. On average, a manager has been in charge of 11 games, which is a bit more than half a season (ISL). Some of the more consistent sides in the ISL - Bengaluru FC (56.45 win%), Chennaiyin FC (38.31 win%) and FC Goa (47.22 win%) have made the least number of changes to their managerial roster, which has helped them in the long-term as they are the three teams with the highest win percentage. ATK are the only exception where a club has had six managerial stints and managed to win three ISL trophies so far. Even if we discard the manager-performance correlation, there’s a lot more to justify.
The sacking of misfiring managers has been a trend and in fashion for long but it has also paid dividends. Following the footsteps of the same, in anticipation of glory, Kerala Blasters chopped and changed mercilessly, but still they failed to find that perfect combination. While the trial and error method is a tested one, some of the decisions taken by the management were controversial. Prior to the 2019-20 season, the team was supposed to complete pre-season in the UAE, which was cut short due to a contract breach from Mirchi Sports, the promoters and event organisers.
Even if we ignore that, some of the players arrived in the camp injured, while their biggest star Sandesh Jhingan sidelined for the season. Replacements needed to be in place and the structure of the team had to be kept in accordance with the head coach, which hasn’t always been the case. Soon after Eelco was sacked, the Dutch manager revealed that he never had a say in the recruitment of Indian players nor did the management co-operate with him in the management process. If true, this isn’t the way a club, chasing after an ISL title, is run.
“I believe that for a club to have success in the long run, the manager and the club need to have cooperation in the planning and the scouting of the team. Last season, I didn’t have any say in the Indian recruitment. It is not a criticism but we didn’t have the strongest Indian players. I may be the perfect guy to work with those youngsters but I also got criticized for it, which is not always easy. I was hoping to shape the team according to my liking next season. But I won’t get my chance now," Schattorie said during an interview with Sportskeeda.
If you feel sacking the European was controversial, there’s more to follow. Sandesh Jhingan, the most capped player in the club’s history and an influential figure in the Indian national team was released by the club after six long years. It was only after the defender recovered from his injury that he realised he was without a club ahead of the next season. Leaving a player of Sandesh’s calibre was a bold move indeed, knowing that there would be repercussions. God knows played at the back of their mind - maybe he would not be able to deliver with the same potential post-injury. But that sounds ridiculous, isn’t it?
The gravity of the matter was such that former players of the club, Michael Chopra and Canadian Iain Hume, slammed the management for parting ways with the defender. Hume took to Twitter and stated that the Kerala Blasters lost its heartbeat, following it up with a sarcastic comment that hit straight at the club. Chopra did not shy away from taking a shot at his former club either, having commented on the same Tweet and questioned the management’s abilities to run a football club. Coming from people who were part of their own unit demands attention and it’s high time the decision-makers mend their ways for a better future.
Once the assistant coach of the South Indian team, English coach Trevor James Morgan sang along the same lines and marked Kerala Blasters FC’s insatiability as the main reason for their downfall. He admitted that stability is key but “When you employ coaches, give them time. You can’t change things instantly. In Europe you get 38 or 40 games, if you have a bad spell, you can rectify it. But here you don’t get that time. I don’t think it is a problem with the ISL. That is the way the league is. It is really down to the people who own the club. They have to have faith in the person they are employing. Maybe longer-term contract will help the clubs. Give the coach two or three years so that they can build something."
Spanish coach Kibu Vicuna has been appointed as Kerala Blasters FC’s new head coach for the upcoming season after he guided Mohun Bagan to an I-League title with four matches to spare. He is luckier than his predecessors, having signed a two-year contract with the yellow brigade, but the question arises how long the management keeps faith in him. Since he’s slated for a longer stay, the owners need to cooperate with him, unlike previously, to see a change in fortune. That might be the only way for them to bring back glory to the football-crazy state which has been deprived of a trophy for a long-long time.