Kozhikode-based I-League side Gokulam Kerala got off to patchy start in their debut I-League season. Under Kerala-born head coach Bino George, the side struggled to get points on the board in the first half of the 2017-18 season and a huge chunk of the blame was shifted on to the foreign contingent in the squad.
The Gokulam Gopalan-owned club lost several of their foreigners to injuries and had to dip into the transfer market again in January. In came Ugandan centre-forward Henry Kisekka who, alongside fellow national Mudde Musa, easily slotted into the first team and delivered with immediate effect.
Kisekka was a nightmare for the opponents as Gokulam Kerala went on a 'giant-killing' run, getting the better of the likes of Mohun Bagan and East Bengal on their way. At the end of the season, however, they lost their precious recruit to Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan who offered a deal that the striker just could not refuse.
Months later, as Gokulam Kerala prepares for their second I-League adventure, it is still Kisekka's impact that needs replacement in an otherwise talented unit.
"We haven't found a replacement for Henry Kisekka. We are trying to sign a striker like Kisekka. Otherwise, we are as strong as we were last season," Bino George opened up to Goal.
"If you look at last season as two halves, we lost around six matches back-to-back. In the second half of the season, we lost only one or two games and won the rest. What changed was that we signed a good striker.
"Last season, our players got to know what I-League is. Our midfielders are the same. They have learned about Mohun Bagan and East Bengal and have learned how to win games."
Bino George has not had it easy by any sense of imagination. After leading the club to a seventh-place finish in their debut season, the coach planned to take a sabbatical. This forced the management to bring in a foreign coach named Fernando Valera.
Under Valera, Gokulam Kerala won the Kerala Premier League but the Spanish coach's tenure wouldn't last long as he left the club during pre-season, leaving Bino George as the best candidate to take over the reins once again. With only a month left before the start of the season, George was left with a foreign contingent comprising of Valera's choices and a team that had gotten used to the foreign coach's style of play.
"The only issue here is that Fernando Valera came in and tweaked the style of play for a few months. So I am now trying to get the team to play according to my style of play.
"The club management never attempted to bring in a foreign coach. They did so only because I let them know of my unavailability due to personal issues. I thought of taking leave and staying away. The club then made me technical director because they wanted my service.
"The new signings were selected by Fernando Valera. He selected players that suited his style of play. But that does not mean that the players are bad."
The core of the team, however, is still Bino George's young starlets from last season, especially in midfield. Arjun Jayaraj was one of the break-out stars last season and the Malayali head coach has high hopes for the young players in the team.
"This season will be more challenging for the likes of Arjun Jayaraj, Salman K and Mohammad Rashid. Their link-up in midfield is one of our strengths. If they don't become anxious and instead focus on performing well, they will attract many clubs and can play for India."
Cheering them on at the Kozhikode Corporation Stadium will be a passionate bunch of supporters, mainly from the region of Malabar. While last season's afternoon kick-offs under the blazing sun shooed the supporters away, the new kick-off timings at 5 PM are a welcome change.
"Kerala Blasters brought more fans into the stadium and Gokulam Kerala, after the change in kick-off timings, hope to do the same."