Kerala Blasters FC's Harmanjot Khabra shows there is nothing quite like experience

Towards the end of the Hero Indian Super League 2020-21 season, a sense of impending doom had engulfed Kerala Blasters FC. The club had, despite several promising players in its ranks, not managed to breach the top four and had to settle for another disappointing campaign.  

Unsurprisingly, attentions quickly turned towards the upcoming season. Not just because they wanted to bury the demons of what happened in the 2020-21 edition, but also because a new campaign usually brings about hope and optimism – qualities that satiate the fans’ thirst and more importantly, allow them to venture into fantasy land and dream. 

To add further context, Kerala Blasters FC ended the 2020-21 term marooned at 10th – only a point ahead of bottom-placed Odisha FC. They also shipped 36 goals and while a tally of 23 goals (goals scored) was encouraging, it wasn’t enough to buck what had become a recurring trend.  

Thus, it became clear that they needed a few reinforcements – both on the managerial and personnel front. These reinforcements, by the way, couldn’t just be players who would impress for a couple of weeks before slipping into the periphery.

They needed to be bona-fide game-changers and players capable of sustaining their intensity throughout the campaign because, well, the wait for an Hero ISL crown had reached desperate proportions for Kerala Blasters FC.

To that end, the Kochi-based outfit acquired Harmanjot Khabra in the off-season (July to be precise). He was, after all, the kind of experienced footballer Kerala Blasters FC had been crying out for. Not just because of the pedigree that he brings to the fore, but also because he has seen how the cookie crumbles in the upper echelons of the Hero ISL.

'Serial winner'

From that standpoint alone, it’s fair to say that Khabra has perhaps exceeded those expectations. He has, as always, not been flashy and hasn’t hogged the limelight. But whenever his side have needed him, he has been there – holding the proverbial guiding torch and ensuring that Kerala Blasters FC don’t stumble on their path to elusive Hero ISL glory.

“I think it has helped them enormously. He is a serial winner and he does remind me a lot of a European type of attitude with whatever he does. He doesn’t like losing and he ensures that everyone around him has that same kind of passion. He is helping others in the team,” former Hero ISL-winning head coach John Gregory said.

Paul Masefield – another pundit who has seen Khabra grow over the years, showered similar praise, saying that the experience he has can’t really be bought.

“I think Khabra at the back has really helped Kerala Blasters FC. He won the Hero ISL at Bengaluru FC playing that position. He won it as a midfielder playing for Chennaiyin FC. You can’t get that experience of someone who has won the title for different clubs playing in different positions,” Masefield commented.

A role model

Apart from Khabra’s contributions on the pitch, he also seems to be exerting a lot of influence on the youngsters in the dressing room. In the past, Khabra has been painted as an individual who is completely focused on his task and doesn’t let anything bother him, even when the going gets tough. From Kerala Blasters FC’s perspective, they would be chuffed that he has brought that to the table in 2021-22 too.

“He gets up and down the pitch very well. With respect to the European style of play, he does have the ability and the fitness levels to get around the pitch which I feel is a real sort of example for the younger boys. His biggest strength is the way he goes about his job. He is a good role model for the youngsters at Kerala Blasters and is someone they can look up to,” Gregory quipped.

The bigger positive has probably been the way in which Khabra’s elite mindset has permeated through Kerala Blasters FC’s ranks. Throughout his career, the defender has developed a reputation for being a tough proposition to tackle and has resembled someone who would run into a brick wall if his team asked him to – all without flinching.

“One of Khabra’s biggest qualities is his heart. He wears it on his sleeve when he plays. He doesn’t back down, fronts up, does the business, is consistent – it is absolutely everything you want from a player. When you wear your heart on your sleeve, you leave nothing in the dressing room. He is a natural leader and the younger players are drawn towards him – they want to learn and understand. He has such a big role to play in that team to galvanize it all and that is the biggest quality we have seen from him,” Masefield added.

In the past couple of years, there have been numerous full-backs who have seemed more talented or seem to have a greater repertoire of skills at their disposal.

Hence, it wasn’t a surprise that many weren’t convinced when Khabra arrived at Kerala Blasters FC in the off-season. The veteran, though, knows what it takes to succeed and be consistent, meaning that he has hardly left anything to chance so far this campaign. 

“You know the tackles are going to come in, the physicality is going to be there and you know things are going to be kept simple. He knows his limits, he plays to his limits. And, with a player who wears his heart on his sleeve like Khabra, you can guarantee they know what they are doing. He deserves the credit that he is getting. A lot of people raised eyebrows when Khabra signed for Kerala Blasters but he has definitely silenced those critics,” Masefield elaborated.

Gregory, meanwhile, singled out one quality that has made Khabra stand out – a quality that he witnessed first-hand when the pair won the Hero ISL crown at Chennaiyin FC.

“He knows what it takes to win titles and I think his influence around the team [KBFC] is very evident in the way he plays,” Gregory chimed in.

A key part of the Kerala Blasters FC's style

As things stand, Kerala Blasters FC find themselves perched at the pinnacle of the Hero ISL points table. They are a point ahead of Jamshedpur FC and seem primed to make the top four. A lot of credit has been garnered by Adrian Luna, Alvaro Vazquez, Roberto Pereyra Diaz and Sahal Abdul Samad. Rightly so too.

Yet, it would take a brave man to suggest that Khabra, who has acted as a glue for the entire squad, hasn’t had as much of a pivotal role to play. If anything, he has been even more vital to Kerala Blasters FC’s success. Not just because he has been a part of a defensive line that has conceded just six goals in their past 10 matches, but also because he has, on multiple occasions, illustrated that there is nothing quite like experience.

Over the years, Kerala Blasters FC have always had players who could mesmerize. That, however, hasn’t been packed together with enough substance, meaning that a Hero ISL title has eluded them. With Khabra in the mix, that might just be about to change.

At times, he may look ungainly. His passion might overflow into emotional outbursts and strong tackles, and he might not be able to whip crosses as devilishly as some of his more talented contemporaries can.

But he will almost always be there in the thick of things - grafting, grinding and letting the opposition know that they are in a battle – a battle where nothing will come easy and every ounce of advantage will have to be measured against every drop of sweat and blood.   

Sort of embodies how Kerala Blasters FC have been this season, doesn’t it?

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