News Matches

Underdog Stories: Debutant Bengaluru FC's I-League win in 2013-14 was a mission executed to perfection by Ashley Westwood

05:51 BST 13/04/2020
Bengaluru FC
The Blues sent tremors across the Indian football fraternity by lifting the I-League title in their very first attempt...

On July 20, 2013, a new club backed by the JSW Group from the garden city of Bengaluru set foot in the domestic footballing landscape.

They had won the bidding rights and the All India Football Federation (AIFF) had given them a three-year immunity from getting relegated. In turn, the steel magnate agreed to invest in and improve football infrastructure.

Bengaluru FC's entry meant top tier football returned to the silicon capital of India after HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) were relegated in 2011-12 season.

CEO Parth Jindal announced that a certain Manchester United Youth Graduate, in Ashley Westwood, will take charge of the club. However, given the fact that he had hung up his boots just over two years before and since he had limited coaching experience, a lot of eyebrows were raised. While most pundits opined that the young British manager will be out of his depth against experienced coaches like Karim Bencharifa, Armando Colaco etc, the British tactician did not take long to prove that he meant business.

More importantly, he did not shy away from taking tough decisions as he went about implementing his methods.

"Every single player at this club will be treated in the exact same manner, be it foreigner or Indian. We have no superstars at this club, everybody will be treated exactly the same for me. I am a fair and honest person. I treat everybody on the merit," he had told Goal after taking up the job. 

The message was clearly written on the wall - either perform or perish. 

The team management backed the coach to the hilt by signing quality foreign players. In John Jonson, they captured a defender who had represented Middlesborough in the Premier League. Curtis Osano, a Reading academy product, joined and he was followed by Johnny Menyongar, a sturdy midfielder who had moved from Shillong Lajong. Sean Rooney, who had earlier played for Salgaocar, also moved to the club.

But their Indian contingent, apart from Sunil Chhetri, had a lot of relatively unknown players and were yet to make a name for themselves. The likes of Rino Anto, Keegan Perera, Thoi Singh, Siam Hanghal, Darren Caldeira, Gurtej Singh, Karan Sawhney and goalkeeper Pawan Kumar were some of the regulars in that squad. Though none of them were huge names, Westwood managed to turn them into a winning unit.

On September 22, the Blues played their first official match against Mohun Bagan at the Bangalore Football Stadium. At their home turf, the debutants proved to be a tough nut to crack. Rooney scored the first official goal for Bengaluru FC and put the hosts ahead after play resumed in the second half. They almost managed to upset Bagan, but an injury-time equaliser from CS Sabeeth helped the Mariners escape with a point.

They won all their next four matches at home and surprised everyone with their pragmatic approach. Westwood had built a unit which knew how to churn out a result and more importantly, dared to take the game to the opposition irrespective of their past honours and legacy. 

That Bengaluru team thrived on wing-play with full-backs given the freedom to overlap and put in crosses into the box.

They defeated Mohamedan Sporting 2-1 and thrashed Dempo 3-1 in successive matches with Rooney scoring five in as many games.

After enjoying home comforts for over almost a month, Westwood's men had to spend a lengthy stretch playing away. In their very first match in Kalyani, against East Bengal, they fell to a 2-0 defeat. Suddenly the Midas touch was gone and Bengaluru picked up only two points in their next four matches. 

On November 26, they faced Salgaocar in Margao and much to the disappointment of the local fans, they stunned the hosts 2-1. Menyongar put in a brilliant shift in midfield and even scored to help his team get back on winning track. 

After this match, there was no looking back. They won all the matches, barring a 2-0 loss to East Bengal, till December and finished the year on the top spot with 30 points from 15 matches. 

After Rooney's exploits in the opening matches, it was time for Chhetri to step up his game. His partnership with Rooney kept blooming with each passing game and the skipper had already scored nine goals at the halfway stage of the league. 

On matchday 18, they completed the double over Churchill Brothers with Chhetri bagging two goals. Johnson and Osano played a remarkable game at the back with Churchill's strikers struggling for space throughout.

Apart from a shock 3-0 loss to Shillong Lajong and a draw with Pune FC, Bengaluru picked up full points from their last seven fixtures. East Bengal tried to mount a final push but it was not enough to overcome a poor start to their campaign and Bengaluru won the title with a match to spare. 

Siam Hanghal and Beikhokhei Beingaichho were consistent performers and they were ably supported by Menyongar, who played every single minute of the campaign. The Liberian was deployed in a box-to-box role and his ability to break up opposition attack handed Bengaluru the upper hand at the centre of the park in most matches. 

It could be argued that Bengaluru had an average group of players and Westwood managed to get them to overachieve. It was the Englishman who first deployed Chhetri on the left wing and showed that the skipper can be equally lethal from the wide areas. He instilled a mentality that helped them dig deep and overcome any adversity they had to face. No wonder Westwood was adjudged the best coach of the season by the Football Player's Association of India for his heroics.