If HAL’s journey through the recently concluded season was documented, it would beat most movie scripts for drama. It involved the rise of the underdog, then a gradual fall from grace followed by tragedy, on and off the field. The last day victory over title contenders Dempo, to finish ahead of ONGC and JCT FC, made for a thrilling climax too. By the end of May, it looked like a series of disappointments would eventually culminate into a huge disaster but the team‘s fighting spirit and veteran midfielder, Xavier Vijay Kumar’s heroics meant that HAL narrowly escaped relegation.
The Aircraftmen had to play 10 matches away from home in the first half because their stadium was not ready, however, that did not stop them from making a phenomenal start to the season. A hard-fought 1-0 win at over JCT was followed by a memorable 2-1 win over Mohun Bagan, their first away win over the Kolkata based rivals in a decade. After this the club saw a run of mixed results but ended the year in a stable 9th position, with all their home games still in hand.
Unfortunate Turn of Events:
The turn of the year brought the club misfortune. In February, reserve goalkeeper Arun Kumar passed away after a collision with his team member Ankit Sharma during a training session, causing a crack on the latter’s foot. The bereavement left everyone at the club in a state of shock and such a tragedy is bound to have a negative impact on the psychological condition of the players, which further affected their on-field performances.
AFC Licensing Blow:
The club was then faced with the possibility of not being eligible to play in the I-League regardless of their league position. The AFC’s licensing rules require all the 14 clubs taking part in the national league to be registered as professional independent clubs. But the public sector undertaking outfit HAL, along with Air Indian and ONGC, could not convert themselves to commercial entities, thereby not meeting the criteria and were all set to be excluded for the next season. However, AFC eventually relaxed the rules to accommodate all the erring clubs into the league for the upcoming season.
The Spirited Fight-back:
On the field, a shocking run of games which included a 9 match winless streak saw the club find itself at the bottom of the table by April. With games against three title contenders in Churchill Brothers, East Bengal and Dempo to be played, the writing was on the wall for the Bangalore based club. However with reports of other clubs’ growing interest, an opportunity to earn lucrative contracts proved motivation enough for the players to raise their game.
Xavier Vijay Kumar almost single handedly carried the team to safety. His 82nd minute equalizer against East Bengal, one of the goals of the season, was followed by a second half brace in the last match against Dempo which helped the club finish on 12th, tied on points with ONGC and Air India but ahead on head to head record. The end to the season proved as astonishing and delightful as the start for the Bangalore based institutional outfit.
The Disease & Diagnosis:
There were some brilliant individual performances as a result of which the players won several ‘Player of the Match’ awards but the team’s displays were rarely up to the mark. The defense looked shaky in the absence of Femi Joseph Adeola, letting in 40 goals through the season.
The bickering within the camp became public as disaster loomed. Xavier skipped training ahead of the all important East Bengal game due to differences with team officials. Even skipper Murali criticized the management publicly, “Our coaches don’t have a tactical plan with regards to how to use the formation, wing play and so on.”
Manager M. Muralidharan realized that the team needed a more ‘defense-oriented approach’, but not until the Churchill match. The biggest problem however, was the lack of goals. The team managed just 18 goals in the entire season, 5 of which came in the last two matches.
The Path Ahead:
Eventually, top flight football may not be enough incentive for many players. Xavier has already agreed to join Churchill Brothers on a 2 year contract and Murali Joseph has been strongly linked with a move to Mohun Bagan. Defender Femi Joseph Adeola is reportedly considering an offer from Chirag United. Srikanth and Rohit Chand are linked with the Pune FC while midfielder James Singh, defender Lilyan Kenneth and goalkeeper Pramod are all weighing up their options. Teenage winger Malemnganba Meitei may move to second division winners Lajong FC.
HAL boasts of a proud history, a great youth structure and now a fantastic stadium. However, the struggles of last season and the imminent departures of their star players will make their survival in next year’s I-League an even tougher task. But for now the fans can look back at the roller-coaster season and cherish the club’s great escape.
~ Kumar Shivam
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