It has been yet another underdog story as Northerners Minerva Punjab lifted the Hero I-League on a day on which any of the top four could win it. The team was able to bring the Top Division Title back to the state of Punjab after 23 years since JCT won the inaugural National Football League.
Despite Minerva Punjab being the protagonists of the 2017-18 I-League, there have been many tales to tell from the amazing season of the I-League and Sportskeeda looks at the best of the lot!
#1 Minerva scripts yet another Cinderella story
Aizawl FC scripted a historic tale last year as they finished at the pinnacle of the league with 37 points from 18 games. The Indian football fraternity thought it was merely a flash in the pan.
With Bengaluru FC shifting to the Indian Super League, all the predictions of winning the league were in favour of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan with the added advantage of six foreigners in the squad. Nobody fancied Minerva Punjab to win the league in the presence of the financially stronger Kolkata sides.
Tables turned throughout the course of the season as Minerva Punjab went undefeated for five opening games and losing just one in the opening eleven games. With a six-point lead at the top of the table in the middle of the season, the teams and the fans were in awe as yet another Cinderella story was in the making.
Minerva Punjab suffered few hiccups in the final third of the season resulting in the league going down to the wire but eventually overcame the challenge of Churchill Brothers in the final round game at home to be crowned the Champions of India with 35 points from 18 games.
The rise of new teams in the I-League has certainly caught the attention of the fans and media alike, reminding the Kolkata giants that they need to change over time or else more setbacks are on their way.
#2 NEROCA's rise from the bottom
The newest entrant of the I-League along with Gokulam Kerala after winning the I-League 2nd Division gave the fans from the North East of India a chance to witness a triple rivalry at the hills with Aizawl FC and Shillong Lajong. The Orange Army ,as they are fondly called, led the attendance charts and finished the league as the runner's up.
NEROCA FC pipped the Kolkata giants and finished with 32 points from 18 games. Consistency was key to NEROCA's impressive I-League debut as they lost only on four occasions.
NEROCA's stirring debut at the I-League proves the fact that the teams from lower divisions can give the Top Division sides a run for their money if given a proper platform with precise execution.
#3 The rise of Soosairaj
Born in a small village of Eraviputhenthurai in Kanyakumari, Michael Soosairaj from Chennai City FC has achieved a lot this season. Scoring 3 goals from 18 outings with impressive through balls, Michael Soosairaj has taken the Indian Football Fraternity by storm. Soosairaj was instrumental in Chennai City's campaign.
Impressed by the performance of the South Paw, Indian Super League side Jamshedpur FC have lured him up for the next season.
#4 The revelation of Chencho Gyeltshen
Hailing from an unearthed region as far as the scouting of foreigners in Indian Football clubs is concerned, Chencho Gyeltshen from Bhutan was one of the finds of the season. The Bhutanese scored seven goals from 17 games. He was a sensation among the fans with pacy runs down the flanks and quick dribbling abilities.
The success of Chencho Gyeltshen resulted in talents like Bimal Magar and Kiran Limbu from Nepal plying their trade in Mohun Bagan and Minerva Punjab for a quarter of the season.
#5 Sanjoy Sen's Resignation
After a successful sojourn with Mohun Bagan, the Mariners finally parted ways with the I-League and Federation Cup-winning coach. Mohun Bagan were plagued with injuries to Yuta Kinowaki and Sony Norde at the beginning of the season after winning the first Kolkata Derby 1-0 in Kolkata.
With three straight draws at home and an unexpected loss to Chennai City in the Maidan resulted in immense pressure on Sen, eventually leading to his resignation. He was even spat upon by the fans as reported by local Media.
Sen took a huge gamble of playing an unfit Norde at home against NEROCA which proved to be a costly decision, ruling the Haitian out of the league. Lack of plans and tactics resulted in fans becoming impatient with him over time.
#6 Gokulam FC - The Giant Killers
Gokulam Kerala FC entered the league through direct entry under the charismatic Bino George. With just three wins from twelve games, Gokulam Kerala were down at the bottom of the league with the Mighty Mohun Bagan up next. Everybody fancied the Mariners to notch up a comfortable win over the Kerala side but the Men from God's Own Country had different ideas.
With a 2-1 win over Mohun Bagan, they took the league by storm and defeated both the title aspirers Minerva Punjab and East Bengal in the next two fixtures thus earning the title of the 'Giant Killers'.
#7 The rise of Shankarlal Chakrabarty
With a dismantled Mohun Bagan side at his disposal after the resignation of Sanjoy Sen, Shankarlal Chakrabarty did extremely well to keep the Mariners in the reckoning of the league title till the final round of matches.
Mohun Bagan defeated Aizawl FC 2-0 in Shankarlal's debut match as Head Coach. Mohun Bagan also managed to defeat arch-rivals East Bengal in the derby, a match where every prediction was against them.
Mohun Bagan went on to win six of eleven games under Shankarlal, giving some respite to the officials and the fans.
#8 East Bengal bottles it yet again
Under Khalid Jamil, the East Bengal fans were looking to an end to their fourteen-year drought of winning the league title. The Red and Golds were handed several chances to go top of the table throughout the season but bottled all of them to finish fourth in the standings.
East Bengal gave away one-goal leads in three matches by conceding goals in the final third, thus missing out six crucial points in the middle of the season. With several results going their way, East Bengal could have won the league by winning the next two games.
With the onus on themselves, East Bengal yet again bottled their chances by drawing the next two games against Shillong Lajong and NEROCA FC thus failing to win the league again.
#9 New Indian talents at the fore
With the majority of the top Indian Players choosing the Indian Super League over the I-League, it gave the other Indian talents the perfect platform to prove their mettle. The Kolkata Giants usually lured up the top Indian talents courtesy their financial prowess, the duo from Kolkata could not do so due to the presence of the Indian Super League. The Kolkata Giants had to turn to the other clubs in the league and signed several players from the other I-League clubs with handsome contracts.
Clubs such as Aizawl FC, Churchill Brothers, Shillong Lajong had to turn to their Academy Graduates as an alternative to fill the void caused due to several ongoing transfers thus promoting young talents to the big stage.
Some of the players like Ronald Singh (NEROCA FC), Raynier Fernandes (Mohun Bagan), Sk. Faiaz (Mohun Bagan), Rana Gharami (Mohun Bagan), Nikhil Kadam (Mohun Bagan), Brandon Vanlalremdika (East Bengal), Laldanmawia Ralte (East Bengal), Hmunmawia (Aizawl FC), Khwalhring (Aizawl FC), Samuela Lalmuanpuia (Shillong Lajong), Arjun Jayaraj (Gokulam Kerala), Kivi Zhimomi (Gokulam Kerala), Edwin Vanspaul (Chennai City FC), Pandiyan (Chennai City FC) and Michael Soosairaj (Chennai City FC) caught the attention of the scouts and the fans with their impressive performances.
The introduction of Indian Arrows also put the best U-19 and U-17 talents at the show. Abhijit Sarkar, Edmund Lalrindika, Anwar Ali, Prabhusukhan Gill, Boris Thangjam were the standout performers from the development side.
Such massive talent pool emerging from this season of I-League is bound to be beneficial for the growth of Indian Football.
#10 The Rise in Stadium Attendance
I-League 2017-18 saw almost a 200% rise in the attendance with 10280 average attendance across all the venues as compared to 5233 average attendance last season.
East Bengal and Mohun Bagan returning to Salt Lake Stadium played a huge part with massive Derby Attendances of 67,000 and 52,000 in both the legs. Chennai City FC's new home in Coimbatore also was instrumental as they recorded an average attendance of 8194.Gokulam Kerala's introduction also played a part as they clinched an average attendance of 8131. Among the mentioned crowd pullers, the standout performers are surely NEROCA FC as they pulled an average crowd of 21382 per match throughout the season.
The promotion of the league by Star Sports and Local Media also played a major part in the huge success of I-League this season.
The Average Attendance of all the teams are as follows :
NEROCA FC - 21382
East Bengal - 17366
Mohun Bagan - 15825
Chennai City - 8194
Gokulam Kerala - 8131
Minerva Punjab - 5736
Shillong Lajong - 5454
Aizawl FC - 4256
Indian Arrows - 3256
Churchill Brothers - 2921