Rear of the rookiehttps://indianexpress.com/article/sports/football/rear-of-the-rookie/

Rear of the rookie

Little did the duo know that, a year on, they would be the guiding forces behind a fledgling club’s title triumph.

Around this time last year, Ashley Westwood was job-hunting in Manchester. After just 15 matches and 67 days in the job, he was sacked as the assistant manager of Blackburn Rovers by the club’s Indian owners, Venky’s, along with manager Mike Appleton.

Roughly the same time, Sunil Chhetri’s sojourn in Europe had ended on a bitter note, with Sporting Lisbon ‘B’ deciding not to renew his contract. The India captain was mulling over his future, still in two minds whether to try his luck abroad or play in the I-League.

Little did the duo know that, a year on, they would be the guiding forces behind a fledgling club’s title triumph.

Bangalore FC, which didn’t even exist when Churchill Brothers lifted the trophy last season, ended Goa’s domination of the country’s premier domestic competition on Monday.

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Bangalore were crowned champions after they defeated the most successful I-League team Dempo 4-2 in their own backyard, to signal a symbolic shift of power in Indian football.

Bangalore’s triumph ensured that for the first time, the I-League title won’t be headed to Goa and at the same time, extended Kolkata clubs’ desperate wait to bring the trophy home.

The Chhetri-led side won the league with one more round of matches still to be played. They have accumulated 44 points in 23 matches, four points ahead of their closest challengers East Bengal.

Clubs from the South, HAL and Viva Kerala being the most prominent ones, have previously competed in the domestic league but not with much success.

But Westwood & Co have been stirring the game from its slumber in Bangalore. “I had a long conversation with Michael Appleton and with people in the English FA, and decided it was something which appealed to me,” Westwood, who became the first English manager to win the I-League title, had said earlier.

“(The JSW Group) were looking for European coaches and I thought I could add another string to my bow and test myself in a different culture.”

Unconventional role

A test he has passed with distinction. Westwood knew his responsibility would extend much beyond the conventional role of a manager the moment he signed the dotted line. And in a short span, the club built a reputation of not just playing an entertaining brand of football under the 37-year-old but also setting high standards off the field.

The club’s unique marketing initiatives has helped them pack the terraces. In the run up to their first home game last September, he spread the word around the local shops and malls. Bangalore also tied up with a brewery, which is their ‘official pub.’ The club’s matches are shown on a giant screen, preferred over the Premier League ties. Season tickets are sold to build a strong fan base.

Every home match was a sell-out and the positive energy from the stands translated into winning performances on the field. When they were formed last season, Bangalore had a disadvantage of forming their team from limited pool of players at the start of the season considering the best were already employed with 13 other teams.

Chhetri was their only big signing. The 29-year-old was mocked by many for signing for a team that they predicted would fight for survival. But he and Westwood, along with foreign players — John Johnson and Sean Rooney — set out to turn the ragged bunch into a champion unit.

Chhetri has been the team’s linchpin. He is the leading scorer of the league, having scored 14 goals so far including the one against Dempo that sealed the match and, thus, the title. In the process, he equalled Baichung Bhutia’s 17-year-old mark of most goals scored by an Indian striker in the league. One more goal and he will have another record to his name.

Chhetri, in fact, was loaned to Churchill Brothers towards the end of last season and played an influential role in their I-League triumph. The striker, however, rated his achievement with Bangalore as a significant moment. “There are very few moments in my career that will match the significance of this one. It’s been a team effort since day one. We’ve fought hard, trained harder and none of us are surprised that we are here today,” Chhetri remarked.

Rangdajied not relegated

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Shillong: Rangdajied United FC escaped relegation after securing a point playing a goalless draw against Shillong Lajong FC at an I-League return-leg derby in front of a nearly-packed JN Stadium in Shillong. Rangdajied, thus, ended their season with 25 points from 24 matches, leaving behind former I-League champion Churchill Brothers and Mohammedan Sporting FC in the relegation zone. —PTI