As Kerala Blasters players and coach David James boarded the team bus to leave the JLN Stadium in Kochi after a tiring 0-1 defeat to FC Pune City, fans chanted 'Berbatov, Berbatov!' and 'We're fu**ing shit!'.
Dimitar Berbatov unceremoniously left the Indian Super League (ISL) club last season by posting an Instagram story criticising the coach's tactics. He was mocked and criticised by the club's supporters initially but several months later, they have felt the need to emphasise that maybe, the former Manchester United player had a point.
Blasters are on a winless run of 10 matches, the joint-worst (alongside Delhi Dynamos) run in a season in the league's history. Making matters worse is the decline in the number of supporters turning up for home games, something that the club has never had to go through since its inception in 2014. This is concerning because Kerala Blasters, despite not adding a single trophy to their shelves, are known for their large fan base which is considered to be one of the best in India.
David James, after the defeat to Pune City, was perplexed as to how the fans can stop coming to the stadium due to poor results. It makes sense to ponder upon that but the reality is that not every single stadium-goer in Kochi attended Blasters' matches because they religiously followed the sport or the club.
Yes, there are a few thousands of fans who have stuck to their task of supporting the club but you can't expect the casual watchers to turn up when the results are bad. Back when the stadium in Kochi had more than 55000 supporters for home games, families including little kids, college students and every other Keralite treated the games as a celebratory occasion. It contributed to a wonderful atmosphere inside the stadium. To add to the numbers, there were fans travelling all the way from Malappuram and Kozhikode. This went on for almost four seasons despite Blasters not having the success on the field to reward their fans.
When the defeats and draws started to pile up. a section of the hardcore fans became disillusioned and the others just lost interest. Most members of Manjappada and other fan groups of the club are still turning up regularly and it makes no sense to put the blame on them for the drop in attendance figures.
The fan culture in Kerala is taking a new shape. With the entry of Gokulam Kerala into the scene, the football-loving region to the north of Kerala where a fan culture is already established is slowly turning into a hotbed for the sport. Despite the lack of grand marketing plans and extensive television coverage that includes 'prime-time' kick-offs as in ISL, I-League football in Kozhikode has attracted a good turnout this season.
The support for Gokulam Kerala at the start of their debut season was modest but that was to be expected with Blasters being the monopoly, having the entered the scene in 2014 when the state did not have a professional football club to cheer for. The poor results in Kochi have been a blessing in disguise for the Malabarians, who do not necessarily need Blasters to fail so as to garner more support.
When Gokulam Kerala gained entry into th I-League a year back, they were advised by the who's who of Indian football to play from Kozhikode instead of Manjeri in Malappuram which was to be their original base. This was done so because it was feared that football fans from the district of Malappuram would fail to turn up in Kochi for Blasters' ISL matches. However, for a fan, getting to Kozhikode from Malappuram is easier than getting to Kochi.
Multiple clubs and fan bases can co-exist in Kerala but results and approach towards the supporters will keep the pendulum swinging. A few wins on the trot could attract people to the stadium once again but it won't be as easy as it once was when the Yellows were the only professional club in the state. For now, kudos to the eight thousand fans who turned up to see Kerala Blasters play Pune City in Kochi for they are supporters, not customers.