It’s heartbreak and pain again for Kerala Blasters FC, but there is also hope
For Kerala Blasters FC, pain has been a constant theme in their Hero Indian Super League (ISL) journey. No team apart from Chennaiyin FC have reached more finals in the Hero ISL than Kerala Blasters FC, but unlike their south Indian neighbours who have two titles, the Blasters’ trophy cabinet has remained empty.
The Kerala Blasters FC fans look back at those defeats with a lot of hurt, but their performances in the other campaigns that have seen them languish near the bottom end of the table also means that these finals, despite the results remain the highlights of their Hero ISL journey so far.
Their third appearance in the final against Hyderabad FC on Sunday was meant to be the occasion when the Kerala Blasters FC finally tasted success and put an end to years of pain, but it was not meant to be. In fact, on Sunday they suffered the combined agony that they endured in their first two finals, all in one match.
First they conceded a late goal just like they did against ATK in 2014, to allow Hyderabad FC to equalise two minutes from time. Later, they came up short in the penalty shootout just like they did in 2016 against ATK again. This time the opponent was Hyderabad FC, but the heartbreak and the despair were all too familiar.
History suggests that the Kerala Blasters FC don’t take these emotionally draining results very well as they have never managed to reach the semi-finals in the season after they finished runners-up. In fact, it took them six years to reach another final since their last one in 2016.
But this time, there is hope that it will be different. There is a feeling that Kerala Blasters FC will be able to right the wrongs of the past and slowly build a consistent unit that eventually take them to the biggest prize.
At the heart of this optimism amid the disappointment of defeat is head coach Ivan Vukomanovic. The Serbian took the Blasters to the final against some odds. The team under him has continued to look better in every passing game. From a typically fragile side in the 2-4 defeat to ATK Mohun Bagan in their season opener, Kerala Blasters FC went toe to toe with Hyderabad FC, one of the best teams in the league throughout the season, and had many chances to win the match before the cruel penalty shootout loss.
This Kerala Blasters FC team have shown that togetherness, that spirit that successful teams have. It is evident from the ardent path that they had to take to get to within a whisker of the trophy.
For the Kochi-based side, knockout football started much before the semi-finals. They faced Mumbai City FC in their penultimate match of the league phase knowing a defeat would end their semi-final bid. They dished out a tactically disciplined performance, restricted Mumbai City FC and then overwhelmed them with their quality up front.
Then up against a physical challenge of Jamshedpur FC, the Blasters tweaked their tactics but produced an equally effective performance. The final against Hyderabad FC was more even but Kerala Blasters FC for large parts, especially in the first half prevented Hyderabad FC from dominating the match as they have so often done this season.
In every game they had different heroes who took centre-stage. Against Mumbai City FC, Alvaro Vazquez scored. Against Jamshedpur FC it was Sahal Abdul Samad and Adrian Luna, and in the final it was Rahul KP, a player who had missed a large chunk of the season through injury but delivered in the final.
“In previous seasons, Kerala Blasters FC also had good players. But despite winning the first games, we lost many subsequent games. But in this season, it is not the case. I have never seen such sincere foreign players in KBFC before. To this day, I have rarely seen players in the Blasters tracking back and defending like Luna. He is a perfect fit for Kerala Blasters FC,” noted former India and Kerala football great IM Vijayan in an exclusive interview with the Hero ISL Media team before the match.
The Indian players too have made big contributions and there were a few key players who were experiencing the Hero ISL for the first time. Kerala Blasters FC gave more minutes to U-21 players than any team this season and that bodes well for the future especially with a coach like Vukomanovic to guide them.
“I believe that Ivan (Vukomanovic) is the best coach in Hero ISL when it comes to managing players. I have no doubt about it. The foreign players are good leaders at Kerala Blasters FC but the great leader of the team is the coach,” said Manuel Marquez, Vukomanovic’s opposite number ahead of the final.
Kerala Blasters FC only need to look at their opponents in the knockout games to get a blueprint for sustaining success in the Hero ISL. Hyderabad FC and Jamshedpur FC were among the few teams who had the same head coaches as last season. The Marquez and Owen Coyle-led teams picked up the two silverware on offer in the Hero ISL and also finished in the top two spots in the Hero ISL.
The Blasters FC now need to build on this group of players to ensure that they turn defeats in finals into victories.
“The good thing is when you work throughout the season and you see all those things then you know the recipe for success and know how it can be achieved. These boys have done that this season and I hope they play more finals in their career,” said Vukomanovic after the match.
The Kerala Blasters FC fans will leave Goa feeling the pinch of that loss just like how Hyderabad FC and Jamshedpur FC fans felt when they narrowly missed out on the semi-finals last season. But the Blasters faithful will also go back with a hope in their heart that with the current crop of players and coaching staff, a day will come when they will come out of a final jumping, rejoicing, and with a trophy in their hands.