The Kochi conundrum: Why Kerala Blasters FC struggle at home?

Kerala Blasters FC are a special club. They are one of just three clubs in the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) to have reached the final on three occasions. But it is not the only aspect that makes the yellow army stand out.

The club’s loyal and passionate fans have elevated the club’s stature to an altogether different level with the colour that they have added to the Kerala Blasters FC story.

Very few clubs, if not any in India and maybe even across Asia, are able to match the fan support that the Kerala Blasters FC enjoy. Wherever they play, there are always yellow shirts that cheer the team on.

But it’s at their home – Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium – in Kochi where the magic happens. A matchday in Kochi is not the same as any other day. A yellow fever grips the city and all roads lead to the stadium. Shades of yellow and blue are scattered across the city and all this love culminates into a cauldron of noise when the Kerala Blasters FC set foot on the pitch. It is truly a spectacle.

Very few teams probably even beyond the Indian shores would have a better place to call its home than Kerala Blasters FC, whose fans always make it special everytime their team plays in Kochi.

However, away from the fanfare, cold hard numbers suggest Kochi’s Jawaharlal Nehru stadium, somehow, quite bafflingly has also been a courtyard of struggles for the home team.

Kerala Blasters FC over the years have almost always failed to harness the energy of the passionate home support and turn the stadium into a fortress.

There have been the occasional special nights in Kochi, but they have been lost in the usual evenings of disappointment and despair.

The Kerala Blasters FC have won just 19 out of the 54 matches played in Kochi, a win percentage of 35.18 which is the second-lowest in the Hero ISL for teams who have played more than 15 matches at their respective home grounds.

Teams

Win% at home for teams with more than 15 home games

Bengaluru FC

66.67

FC Goa

54.54

Mumbai City FC

45.28

Jamshedpur FC

41.37

Chennaiyin FC

39.62

Kerala Blasters FC

35.18

NorthEast United FC

30.76

It’s a stunning stat for what the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium looks like during a Kerala Blasters FC matchday. A sea of yellow threatening to drown the opponents but at the same time serving as a push for the home side to flourish.

But some how it hasn’t been the case. Not always, but on far too many occasions for the yellow army’s liking.

Why do Kerala Blasters FC struggle at home despite the great fan support? It’s a question that has constantly bugged Indian football fans over the last decade.

Here’s an attempt to analyse the situation.

Lack of goals

Kerala Blasters FC are the fourth-highest goalscorers in Hero ISL history but when it comes to finding the back of the net in front of their own fans, the Blasters often struggle.

The yellow army have a goals per game ratio of 1.2 at home which is the second-lowest in the league and almost half as compared to FC Goa who lead the charts in this metric averaging over two goals per game at home. The Blasters have failed to score in 14 out of the 54 matches played at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium.

Teams

Goals per game ratio for teams with more than 15 home games

 

FC Goa

2.16

Chennaiyin FC

1.77

Bengaluru FC

1.69

Jamshedpur FC

1.41

Mumbai City FC

1.35

Kerala Blasters FC

1.2

NorthEast United FC

1.03

The home record has kept getting worse as seasons have progressed. In their their last 30 matches at home, the Blasters have recorded just seven victories.

Iain Hume who is the club’s third all-time leading goalscorer had mentioned how the pressure of delivering for the passionate fans sometimes weighs down a player. The attacking third of the pitch is where the players need to keep their composure the most and it is no surprise to see the Blasters suffer the most at this end of the pitch as they look to deliver under extreme pressure.

“A passionate home crowd like what the Manjappada are can inspire players. But some players could also shrink under the pressure,” Hero ISL commentator John Helm said.

“I remember a few years back in England there was a game between Leeds United and Derby County. Leeds United too have a ferocious fan base but it worked against Leeds as the Leeds players shrunk under the pressure and it in turn inspired Derby County players to take charge and win the match.

“With Kerala Blasters FC, something similar is happening,” Helm added.

The lack of goals translates to a lack of cutting edge for the Blasters when they play at home and it thus enables teams to neutralise the game and happily pick up a point from a place that can get very hostile for the travelling side.

No team in Hero ISL history has drawn more matches at home than Kerala Blasters FC much to the frustration of the home crowd.

Only once have the Blasters picked up five or more wins at home in a single season and it came way back in 2016 season when they reached the final in Kochi which they eventually lost to ATK FC.

Coping with emotions

While the fans in Kochi are against the traveling teams, the spectacle they create in the stands also goes a way in motivating the away team to put their best foot forward.

Hero ISL expert Erik Paartalu who has been part of a visiting team to Kochi can vouch for this.

“As an away player there is nothing better than playing in front of 40,000 people. It's one of the fixtures you look at first when the schedule comes out and you go down with motivation to play well and to turn up on a big occasion,” the Australian said.

Over the years, with teams noticing the Blasters struggle at home, they have identified patterns which could help them succeed in that hostile environment.

These patterns are rarely tactical but mostly physical and emotional.

“The home team starts well because they have a little more pressure on them and use all that nervous energy up quickly. But after the first 20-30 minutes that energy drops. If away teams can weather that first part of the game they usually have a good opportunity late in the half to take advantage of that energy loss,” Paartalu said.

“The Blasters players need to learn to conserve their energy just a little bit more and not be over anxious or over excited by the fact they have such great support. If they can learn to harness that energy and play through the extra pressure they can make teams suffer at home because once that crowd roars, it can be intimidating,” he added.

Kerala Blasters FC under new head coach Ivan Vukomanovic who guided them to the final in Hero ISL 2021-22 have encountered similar struggles at home despite having a strong team at their disposal.

They have lost two out of their first three matches at home this season and now take on FC Goa who they haven’t beaten since 2016. The Gaurs have the second best record in Kochi after ATK FC having notched up three wins and a draw in their six visits to the city.

With the two teams at the opposite ends of the table at the start of Hero ISL 2022-23 season, Kerala Blasters FC will have their task cut out to turn their home fortunes around.

But if Vukomanovic and Co. can somehow gather their nerves and play the football that they are known for and use the energy gushed out from the crowd instead of being overwhelmed by it, the Blasters could quickly climb up the table.

It’s a shame for the Kerala Blasters FC faithful that the home team hasn’t been able to profit more from their passion from the stands.

The Kochi conundrum is thus the biggest challenge facing any Kerala Blasters FC head coach. If Vukomanovic has to be the one to solve it, there would be no better way to start solving this problem that has bogged the Blasters down than by picking up a rare win against their nemesis FC Goa.

Kochi once again waits with bated breath.

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