On December 11th, 2016, when the All India Football Federation (AIFF) decided to award direct entry into the I-League for Chennai City FC, there was much delight for the new owners of the Tamil Nadu-based club.
But there also dawned the reality of the situation that meant the Chennai-based side had to put together a team worthy of the nation’s top-flight in less than three weeks. They left it so late that the squad was registered only on the day of their first game against Minerva Punjab on 7th January, 2017 at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium in Chennai.
Vikram Murali, General Secretary of the club, elaborated on the challenges they faced to Goal, “Getting the team registered was a nightmare. Our first game was a 4:00 pm kickoff on Sunday (7th Jan). We sat through the previous night to complete the paperwork for players we had brought in just a few days prior. Thankfully, officials from the AIFF helped us complete it all in time.”
They played out a listless 0-0 draw on that day against fellow newcomers Minerva Punjab that showcased very little cohesion within the side, indicative of the lack of training and understanding between the hastily assembled players.
From empty stands to delayed team-sheets!
The organisational shortcomings were also there for all to see - the atmosphere in the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium was flat and uninspiring while there was absolutely nobody coordinating the media box, with the official team sheets being handed over to the journalists at half-time!!
Eight more home games spanning just over two months later, the team go into the enforced break in the league program on a high after a dramatic victory over East Bengal which capped off their inaugural home season in the best possible way.
More importantly, there was a steady increase in the number of fans who were flocking in to see Chennai City in action while the timing of handing over the team sheets also saw a marked improvement. The lineups for the game against East Bengal were made available for the journos almost an hour before the game started. A pleasant change from the first game!
In the midst of it, Chennai City had to weather several storms which included trouble with their home ground where the local authority charged exorbitant sums from the new team, a change in manager, a row over player salaries and the acrimonious exit of one of their foreign recruits - Haroon Amiri.
While some of them could be classified as teething issues, the others were brought about by inexperience at this level, especially the spat between Amiri and the new coach Soundararajan which was made public by the coach himself - a strict NO, NO when it comes to preserving a good team morale.
Au Revoir, Robin!
Amidst all these off-field issues, the team really struggled on the field in the initial phase. The focus while recruitment was to assemble a young and fit squad. Apart from a 34-year-old Denson Devadas and 30-year-old Karanjit Singh, most of the first team players were well under 30.
But their form remained woeful with just four points in the initial five games. Two more defeats to Shillong Lajong and East Bengal later, coach Robin Charles Raja found himself unceremoniously sacked. More than the results, it was also his decision to stick to his foreign imports rather than the local players which irked the management.
With results failing to improve and the management feeling their philosophies were being compromised, Robin Charles’ time was brought to an end, quite harshly, and in came V Soundararajan, who was managing in the local Chennai Football Association (CFA) senior division league.
In keeping with the policy of exposing local players, the new coach blooded a couple of wingers from the local league - Edwin Vanspaul and Nandhakumar S who were incidentally scouted by Robin Charles Raja - and Nandha proved to be a revelation. He also benched Marcos Vinicius, who was berated publicly quite a few times and tried out several local players, namely Michael Regin and Michael Soosai Raj who are brothers incidentally and Raegan Albarnas.
Being the first side from Tamil Nadu to play in the country’s top-flight since Indian Bank in 2004, there was a definite attempt to uphold the Tamil pride which was evident in the way the team dedicated the season to the former Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa, fondly called ‘Amma’, who passed away in December 2016.
They also expressed solidarity with the ‘Jallikattu’ protests which flared up all over the state in January, demanding that the bull-taming sport be legalised again, as they looked to strike a chord with the local fans.
A tactical tweak and a big scalp
Soundararajan implemented a 4-4-1-1 which in reality was a 4-5-1 with Charles doing all the running up front. The results improved, but not dramatically, though an easier run of fixtures did help him early on. But they became a tough team to defeat at home, evidenced by the two wins and three draws they picked up in six home games under Soundararajan.
But up until their final two home games, against Bengaluru FC and East Bengal, the team had not produced an eye-catching result, which was dearly wanted by those in the echelons of power.
“Considering the time that we have been given we most certainly are doing our best to put up a competitive squad which I am sure will put up a good fight and on the way hopefully make few upsets,” Vikram Murali had told Goal back in December.
It would come - first a draw against the defending champions and in the last home match of the season, an opportunistic but crucial win against East Bengal. More heartening was the fact that at times the chants of the loud travelling East Bengal fans were drowned out by a not-so-large but enthusiastic home support.
The season began with plenty of obstacles but Chennai City have soldiered on and now have ended their home season with the proverbial BANG. Though the team could still end finishing at the bottom (insulated from relegation of course), there is a quiet satisfaction among the team management with how their home season panned out.