I-League 2017/18: How Bino George is leading Gokulam Kerala's mission of giant-killing in Indian football
At a time when I-League title favourites Minerva Punjab and East Bengal seem to be wilting under pressure, Gokulam Kerala seem to be riding high on confidence, slaying one giant after another.
The I-League debutants have not had much to cheer about for the majority of the season, but coming to the business end, Gokulam seem to have transformed themselves into a well-oiled unit.
It was not too long ago that the Kerala side was hovering around the bottom of the table. In fact, they were only able to garner seven points from their first nine matches in the league. However, they have turned things around in their last five matches, winning four of them.
Due to these results, Gokulam have now climbed drastically up the table to the sixth position and the introduction of foreign players like Mahmood Al Ajmi and Odafa Okolie has certainly helped their cause.
“I had to make some changes to my team. I brought in three foreigners in the second half and changed the formation,” said Gokulam head coach Bino George. “That was all that I did. After that, it was all down to the hard work of my players.”
While Bino accepted that his players were making mistakes earlier this season, he felt that this was largely due to the inexperience of the team. “Before, we were making silly mistakes due to inexperience. However, we have worked on that,” he said.
On a mission to change Indian football
While the addition of foreigners in key positions helped Gokulam get the results, the crux of their gaffer’s philosophy remains the same – bringing good football to Indian fans.
“Nowadays people watch the Premier League or the La Liga,” he said. “So why should they leave that and watch long ball football in India?"
“If you want to popularize football in the country, you have to make the fans want to watch you play. If they like the way you play your football, they’ll keep coming back,” he added.
Bino believes that it is this conscious effort to play the possession game, that has driven him to rely more on the local players, rather than foreigners at Gokulam. The likes of defender Shinu Shinu, midfielder Arjun Jayaraj, and forward Rashid K have all impressed this season, bringing Gokulam’s mass potential in identifying local talent to the light.
“I have one particular style of play. Hence, I pick the players who I think will fit into my system,” said Bino George. “I’ve known and worked with most of the Kerala players so I know who to pick in which situation.
“They may be a little inexperienced, but that is not an issue for me,” he continued. “We can always sign good foreigners. They may play well, or they may not. The main thing is they all need time to start performing well.”
The craze called Kerala
Kerala’s craze for football has been well documented over the course of the Indian Super League with Kerala Blasters drawing large crowds to the stadiums.
While the entire country focuses its attention on Kochi due to the two-time ISL finalists, it is in another town where the real support is generated from.
“Gokulam is based in Malappuram, and people love football there. It is one of the best places to be a football fan in the country,” said Bino.
“Cricket is not that popular here. Football and athletics are mainstays here. So we badly needed teams in the top leagues from Kerala,” he explained. “So if we play good football, and get results at the same time, the local people will appreciate that, and come to our games more often.”
By comparison, he believes that the Blasters’ fan base has come about mainly due to the presence of Sachin Tendulkar as the co-owner of the club.
“I’m not blaming anyone, but Kerala Blasters have such a huge fanbase because they have the cricket God Sachin Tendulkar as their owner,” he said.
However, Bino did concede that the Kochi-based club is doing its bit to make football popular in Kerala.
“They are doing so much promotion in the state. It is because of them, that football is becoming a household commodity in the state,” he said. “Nowadays you see the likes of Rino (Anto) and CK Vineeth, who have become household names in Kerala. So I really appreciate the Blasters management.”
With just three matches left this I-League season, Gokulam have put themselves in a very good spot to finish in the top half of the table which would essentially ensure qualification for the Super Cup.
As Kerala Blasters are also placed at around a similar position, the mouthwatering prospect of a Kerala derby seems to have propped up. With so much footballing culture already present in the state, it would be interesting to see whether this could become one of the biggest rivalries in the country.
At any rate, it would certainly be, as Bino George puts it, “the biggest moment in Kerala football”.