No title, but a season to remember for East Bengal
Inside 11 seconds of the restart of their last match of 2018, East Bengal's hopes of winning the I-League almost went up in flames in front of their own fans, at the Salt Lake Stadium.
Debutants Real Kashmir, having defended doggedly for 45 minutes, saw midfielder Surchandra Singh zip in a low cross after bombing down the right. East Bengal right-back Lalramchullova tracked back swiftly but the pace of the cross skewed his clearance into the roof of his own net.
Kashmir, perhaps the stingiest defence of the league this season, were on course for a win that would have taken them two points clear of league leaders Chennai City, and five ahead of the Kolkata giants.
East Bengal coach Alejandro Menendez didn't panic. His team kept pinning Kashmir deeper and deeper, winning set pieces along the way. Off a corner, Jobby Justin turned a loose ball into the equaliser.
East Bengal couldn't convert the momentum into a fourth successive win, but the tenacity under duress they showed was key to them taking the title race down to the last kick of the day for the fourth time in five seasons.
What happened to East Bengal on Saturday pales in comparison to both what went on in the backdrop just ahead of the current season, as well as what could follow in the coming months.
With a decade-and-a-half-long association with their previous sponsors UB coming to an end in 2017-18, long-time club fan and chartered accountant Sanjit Sen helped the club secure a title sponsorship with Bengaluru-based Quess later in the year. With Sen having been a key part of the transition period, the new sponsors appointed him CEO in the run-up to the 2018-19 season, with winning the I-League for the first time (they won the National Football League three times, but their last national title came in 2004) a clearly stated objective.
Even if they had won on Saturday, East Bengal could be bidding goodbye to the I-League come 2019-20. It's no secret that the Indian Super League (ISL) are keen to add both them and crosstown rivals Mohun Bagan into the franchise-based league -- rumours suggest their UB sponsorship had come to an end following pressure from ISL officials. Sen himself admits the switch will be one of the big decisions the club's board could take a call on later this year.
In the bigger picture, an I-League title would have counted as just a footnote when the club's centenary comes around in 2020.
With Quess coming on board, it was also a season of significant acquisitions for East Bengal, beginning with Johnny Acosta, who joined the team for the local league on the back of having played 270 minutes at the World Cup for the Costa Rican defence against the likes of Neymar, Aleksandar Mitrovic and Xherdan Shaqiri.
Menendez, brought in as coach ahead of the I-League, brings with himself the experience of having coached Real Madrid Castilla, when the Madrid reserves included Alvaro Morata, Dani Carvajal and Marcos Alonso. His Asian experiences at Buriram United in Thailand, and with China's Shaanxi Wuzhou, made his resume stand out for the club, says Sen. This past week, the club announced a two-year extension for Menendez, not a surprise considering how East Bengal have played an attacking brand of football that has stood out, with the numbers to back. Eight away wins, and only one match without scoring -- both the best for any team in the league.
Sen says the possibility of communication gaps with Menendez was a possibility the club had to consider before hiring him -- the coach speaks through a translator, and perhaps unsurprisingly, both access to him and the team have been limited this season -- but his experience with youth teams has helped him foster a positive dressing room spirit. The coach's recruits since have also had a distinct Spanish flavour -- defender Borja Gomez, attacker Jaime Santos, former Bengaluru FC midfielder Toni Dovale and Mexican striker Enrique Esqueda -- all of whom have contributed to making their Indian colleagues feel at ease.
"I chat with all of them once in a while, during practice sessions, or at times before the match, and I felt the dressing room environment has been very positive," says Sen, who has watched every home game and also travelled away three times. "Thanks to the coach, there's a right mix of discipline and the right degree of bonhomie. There's a very professional culture -- exactly what we had desired."
Saturday's match saw East Bengal miss their most influential Indian player of the season, though. Joint top-scorer Jobby Justin, whose nine goals are also the most by an Indian, picked up an on-field spat with an Aizawl opponent during a 1-1 draw at home last month, bringing him a six-game suspension.
Justin was East Bengal's go-to player, and stood out in a season where other Indian names on their teamsheets were quite impactful. Laldanmawia Ralte and Brandon Vanlalremdika alternated duties and performed the role of attacking midfielders to perfection. Lalramchullova and Kamalpreet Singh looked happy to join in attack from fullback, while captain Lalrindika Ralte was a consistent threat with his crosses and corners. Yet, Justin made the difference in close games, haggling opposition defences with his pace, dribbling and ruthlessness inside the box.
Sen points to the second derby win against Mohun Bagan in January as the best match he saw the club play this season. "It was a game where the team looked extremely controlled, and barring a short spell in the second half, we were convincing in our performance across all areas of the field," he says. Justin had a say in both goals that day, setting up the first and scoring the second, before setting off on a celebratory run, ripping his jersey off and hurdling over the advertisement boards towards the galleries.
It was after 15 years that East Bengal had beaten Mohun Bagan in both legs of the I-League derby, something that was considered a good luck omen for both teams in the early days of the NFL. "Win the derby, win the league," they'd often say.
East Bengal last did both in 2004. They were able to set one of those records right in 2019, but the way they took the title to the wire made it a season to remember.