Breaking into big league

Football

Breaking into big league

Within days of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited making India proud by successfully conducting the maiden flight of the Light Combat Helicopter, their City-based football team brought back joy on the faces of Bangalore’s die-hard fans by qualifying for the I-League.

Since the disappearance of Indian Telephone Industries, the early torch-bearers of Bangalore football, a lot of focus was centered on whether Hindustan Aeronautics Sports Club could carry the torch forward. The journey towards rubbing shoulders with the big boys started off disappointingly when HASC were jeered by their own fans for a lacklustre performance during the Second Division Group phase, but they turned the script upside down with an inspired display in the final phase that left many at the Bangalore Football stadium with no choice but to applaud.

Banished from the last’s year I-League Second Division due to non-compliance with conditions, HASC were pitted against five Kerala outfits and BEML Sports Club in the first phase of qualification this time around. After signaling their intentions with a 3-0 trouncing of local rivals BEML in the opener, the Aircraftmen’s ambitions veered off track with three successive draws. The attack lacked potency, the midfield creativity and control while the defence failed to show co-ordination, the team relying heavily on the individual brilliance of veteran Xavier Vijay Kumar and young star Satish Kumar Jr.
A 5-0 trouncing of Golden Threads did heal the wounds a bit but the scars widened after an embarrassing 2-3 loss to SBT, leaving their final-round qualification hopes hanging by a thread.

Missing three key players due to suspension in the opening match of final phase, HASC laboured to a 1-0 win over Malabar United before coach M Muralidharan opened his bag of surprises by changing the formation, a move that brought instant dividends. He pulled Xavier from attack and put him in his favoured left-wing position, entrusting the striker’s role to Satish. Ricky Joy kept Nigerian Joseph Femi company at central midfield with Bimal Minz and Rajendra Prasad donning the wings.

 “The group phase taught me many lessons,” said Muralidharan. “The team and I were criticised for poor performance and rightfully so. But after sealing our final-round qualification spot, I had 18 days to get the team to its best. Having known the boys for a while now, I decided to change a few positions and they responded brilliantly. After the Sporting win, I immediately felt the team can travel the distance,” added Murali, who took over full-time responsibilities as coach and manager in 2008. HASC’s magic run started with a 3-1 thumping of Oil India, a 4-1 demolition of heavyweights Mohammedan Sporting and a hard-fought 2-1 defeat of Vasco, before a 1-2 defeat to ONGC. Whilst they realised their dream of winning through to the the I-League proper with a 1-1 draw against SESA, the manner of victories was commendable. Down by early goals, the Aircraftmen would have generally cracked up but they showed the stomach for fight by bouncing back from deficits against Vasco, Sporting and NISA.

The cracks that were so wide in the group phase was hardly visible as the team combined effectively in covering up their inadequacies. The attack bore venom, the midfield gained fluidity and flowed nicely with the defence looking sharper. While the coach definitely deserves credit, the players must be commended for carrying out their roles to perfection.

Just 19, Satish terrorised defenders with his burst of pace, presence of mind and finishing, while Xavier was the lynchpin in midfield, working tirelessly with his darting runs, supplying crosses regularly, switching between flanks and still coming up with top-notch goals. Shimoga lad Ricky Joy was sharp at left back, making vital interceptions with a blend of speed and judgment, while goalkeeper Amar Deb was on top of his game with many important saves.

However, three major tasks await Muralidharan as he plots his team’s third foray into top-flight football. Retaining guest players like Satish and Ricky will be paramount, particularly after the duo were reportedly sought by Mohun Bagan and ONGC respectively. The second involves adding muscle to the weak bench strength and the third could be stringing together what a potentially new squad.

“Players leaving us is nothing new. We will do our best to retain them, but it all depends on the budget. At the same time, we are looking to sign a few players from Vasco, Malabar, NISA, Churchill Brothers and Salgaocar. We have called them for trials and by June 10 or 11, the squad for the next season will be finalised,” said Muralidharan with confidence.

While HASC may solve the player problem with talent available in plenty in the market, the question of how they address the ‘separate commercial entity’ guideline clause set by the Asian Football Confederation is another matter altogether. Negotiations will be on continuously to meet the December 31 deadline but at least the fans here will get to witness some top-flight action when the league commences towards the end of this year.

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