After three disappointing seasons on the trot, Kerala Blasters' fans are desperate to taste success. The management has already pulled up the socks and are leaving no stone unturned to revive their fortunes in the next edition of the Indian Super League (ISL).
They have roped in Karolis Skinkys as the Sporting Director from Lithuanian club FK Suduva and made some statement signings in Tiri and Nishu Kumar. Most importantly have got on board a coach in Kibu Vicuna who has found the elixir to success in Indian Football in his very first season.
The 48-year old is a stickler to his philosophy and perseveres to make it work until it produces the desired result. With Mohun Bagan, he did not achieve overnight success. The Mariners were beaten in the Durand Cup final by Gokulam Kerala, lost the Calcutta Football League (CFL) to first-time winners Peerless SC and even got knocked out from the Sheikh Kamal Cup to Terengganu FC in the semi-finals in Bangladesh. But Vicuna's Mohun Bagan did not change their style of play.
"I have never thought of changing my philosophy. I believed in my club. The club management had confidence in me. Even in bad moments, we believed in us. (Therefore) I never thought of changing the style. You must feel the style that you are playing. If you can't feel it, you can't ask your players to play in it," retorted the coach when asked whether he had pondered on changing the style after the initial failures.
By winning the I-League with four matches to spare, it has been proven that with patience and the right kind of players at his disposal, the Spaniard can deliver the goods with aesthetics while yielding results.
Similar to Bagan, Blasters have a squad with the right mix of youth and experience. And Vicuna has no qualms in putting his trust in promising talents. Sheikh Sahil and Nongdamba Naorem (incidentally on loan from Blasters) witnessed tremendous growth under his tutelage and the young guns of the yellow brigade like Rahul KP and Jeakson Singh will also hope to make the most out of their new coach and establish themselves as regulars in the new regime.
Sahal Abdul Samad might also regain his favourite position as a playmaker in midfield as Vicuna's philosophy hinges on a player who is comfortable on the ball at the centre of the park and has the ability to dictate the tempo of a match. The 22-year-old midfielder had a forgetful season under Eelco Schattorie where he fell down the pecking order, was deployed unusually in the wide areas and a change in coach will be welcome music to his ears.
Kerala Blasters were also porous at the back as they leaked in 32 goals in 18 matches. While the injury to Sandesh Jhingan did hamper their performance, it was surprising that they could not overcome his absence even during the business end of the season. Hence, Vicuna's task at hand will be to plug the gaps at the back. He guided Bagan to being the best defensive team in I-League and had to do without the services of Daniel Cyrus for a string of matches when the defender remained sidelined due to a hamstring strain.
It shows that the tactician knows how to set his team up where defensive compactness is not sacrificed at the behest of being prolific upfront.
What will, even more, assure the Kerala faithful that his entire coaching staff including physical trainer Paulius Ragauskas will be following him to his new surroundings. The Tuskers have struggled with injuries throughout the season and the Lithuanian fitness coach can be the perfect antidote to their ailment. Mohun Bagan roped him after showing the door to Michale Abotsi and results were evident in a couple of weeks. A team that had their hands on the hips in the final quarter of matches in the Durand Cup and CFL, were a changed side in I-League as they went on to score seven goals in the final 20 minutes of matches, an indicator of their fitness.
Importantly, we have seen managers struggle to cope with the fan pressure at Kerala Blasters. But having handled the heat that the fans in Kolkata normally produce admirably, Vicuna has shown he can handle it.
Vicuna won his first silverware as a manager with Mohun Bagan, and now it remains to be seen whether he can churn out a blueprint which would propel the Kerala giants to their first-ever ISL title.