Bengaluru FC Reaping The Virtue of Patience

Friday, 2 June 2017|Behind The Dugout by SM

When Albert Roca joined Bengaluru FC at the autumn of another successful domestic season in the I-League, it seemed like the most natural of transitions. Ashely Westwood had taken a new club, with new owners, and new fans and cemented them as one of the superpowers of Indian football and the Spaniard, in theory, seemed to have just the right CV to take the club forward.

Their historic run in AFC Cup campaign further solidified the theory, as they seamlessly traversed from the robust style of Ashley Westwood to the more subtle style under Albert Roca. For the first time in a long-long time, mainstream media turned their attention from the picturesque European football to what was happening in India and Bengaluru FC’s success in Asia was the cause.

The psychological effect of their escapades in Asia was evident in the manner of victory in their first three games at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium. Their opponents timid, as if they had lost the game before stepping onto the pitch. The first three games (all at home) resulted in eight goals for the home side and none scored against them.

However, Albert Roca’s first big hurdle was the game against East Bengal. A fellow title challenger and up against a coach (Trevor Morgan) who prepared his team well enough not to lose the psychological battle, he failed and failed miserably.

Bengaluru’s champagne football was easily bypassed by the team from Kolkata who elected to play the ball long and test the backline with their target man Robin Singh, and the defending champions were outplayed and outthought. This opened the floodgates.

What followed was a string of results when Albert Roca and his team consistently were the second best team. They were without a win in eight consecutive games (in a League where each team plays 18 games in total), a run which included 4 losses.

Gone was the championship, gone was the champagne football, and gone was the tiki-taka. Make no mistake, this was not only the most difficult period during the campaign but undoubtedly the most difficult period in the club’s dormant history.

On top of that, the recruitment ahead of the season was proving to be patchy at best. The very talented Álvaro Rubio after his impressive performances in the AFC Cup was allowed to leave, and in came Roby Norales (forgot him, didn’t you). Roby’s performances in training were so bad, that he was allowed to leave on loan to lower division side Ozone FC.

Even the likes of Sandesh Jhingan, Sena Ralte, Lenny Rodrigues and Mandar Rao Desai, all seasoned pros, struggled to settle into their new club. The possession was sterile, and their flair players in Udatana Singh, Sunil Chhetri and Eugenson Lyngdoh struggled to have the impact they have had in the past campaigns in the I-League.

That is when the murmurs began, social media and the press criticised the manager whose philosophy seemed more like a distant dream than a reflection on his team. With each loss, and another disappointing draw, the heart grew fonder for Ashley, and the fans paid just the bit more attention to his fortunes (or misfortunes) at Penang.

In modern football, this would have justifiably triggered a change of management at most clubs. With the ISL – I-League merger in the horizon you would probably not even blame the management for taking the easy way out and changing the personnel at the club.

What the players needed seemed to be a hand on their shoulder, and a style which they were used to. Albert Roca even admitted, “My impression is that there has been a lot of information given to them, and they have still not made the digestion”. But the management, and to a lot of credit, the fans, stuck by the manager as he slowly started to get his message to the squad.

In the hindsight, the job was never going to be easy, the transition to “total football” for a group of players who are taught to go direct at every opportunity from a very young age was never going to be easy. Surprisingly, and pleasantly, the management understood and looked at the larger picture. The trigger was never pulled.

There were signs of Albert Roca’s blueprint on the side towards the end of the I-League, and they became more prominent during the Federation Cup campaign. The Spaniard, as a good manager would, seems to have adopted his style to the players available to him, and lead the side from South India to a second Federation Cup title in their history.

When Sunil Chhetri’s freekick catapulted them to the knockout stage of the competition which put India on the Asian map, Bengaluru FC turned a full circle. Football undoubtedly is a results business. Commercial success depends on what happens on the pitch, and the fans demand and are accustomed to the constant flux.

“These boys are special. They've done well and we've achieved. It's an honour and I thank them for letting me be their coach", Albert Roca said recently after another successful campaign at a club which has now become so used to success. But, along with the players and the manager, the management behind the scenes should take the plaudits, for doing what people perhaps didn’t expect them to, the right thing, displaying the ‘virtue of patience’.