ISL 2018-19: Despite loss, David James best man to take Kerala Blasters forward
"It's my team! It is different now since i am the manager, but from day one, I am a Kerala Blasters Supporter."
2017 was a roller-coaster of a season for Kerala Blasters but that statement by David James has given belief to every fan that the team is with the right person.
Blasters reached the ISL final in the 2016/17 season and lost - yet again - to ATK. The team then hired a new coach, Rene Meulensteen, in the hope of helping Kerala cross that final hurdle.
A few games into the 2017/18 season, the team management and the fans realised that Meulensteen was not right for the club. Meulensteen, a former assistant coach at Manchester United during Sir Alex Ferguson's reign, was unable to replicate that success in Kerala.
Push came to shove when our fiercest rivals, Bengaluru FC, defeated us at our own den 1-3 on New Year's Eve.
And finally with the dawn of the new year, Blasters turned the clock back and brought the one person that has always stood by the club - David James.
David James - the fans' coach
It is very important for the coach to see the team as more than a professional contract - he has to be passionate about the team as well.
For passionate Malayalee fans, the coach too should reflect that sense of ownership to the team and that's why we feel lucky to have someone like David James as the coach. For us, the Manjappada, the Kerala Blasters is not a team of footballers in Kerala, but it's a club whose footballers are representing Kerala.
David James, the lanky goalkeeper and once a model of renowned brands like Giorgio Armani and H&M, is a UEFA 'A' Coaching license holder. He has a vast amount of playing experience and is fourth in the list of all-time Premier League Appearances.
After successful stints with renowned clubs like West Ham and Manchester City and representing his country England at the highest level, David James the legend joined Blasters as the player-cum-manager for the inaugural edition of the Indian Super League.
In the very first season, he guided Blasters to the final, where they were denied by Atletico de Kolkata.
James left the club then but his love for Kerala Blasters saw him return as coach at the start of the year without a second thought. And he emerged as a saviour at the time of crisis for Blasters and is still helping the team do well.
As a coach, he has earned a special place in every fan's heart. The way he drives the team has captured everyone's attention.
He is not only a great motivator and coach of the team, but also a fans' coach. He always keeps the Yellow Army close to his heart and the supporters too consider James as one of their own.
The fans fondly call him DJ. Another thing that the fans appreciate about DJ is his attempt to use Malayalam words while greeting as he always wishes to be one among the Keralites.
As a coach, he is always accessible to players and is a strict disciplinarian. Senior or Junior, Indian or Foreigner - the team comes first for James.
Any player who does consistently well in training is rewarded with a Starting XI spot and he doesn't have any favourites.
But DJ has a special affection to young players and that is evident from the average age of the Kerala Blasters Team, which has the least age averages among all ISL Teams at 25.
The way he guided team from the lowest ebb to a team with an unbeaten streak in this season speaks volume about his personality. The way he handled the recent Emiliano Alfaro GoalieGate is an example of his stature.
Despite poor refereeing, David James soldiers on
Kerala Blasters are peppered by the poor refereeing this season, but DJ has taken everything to his stride and is focused on the results.
First there was the penalty decision that went against CK Vineeth in the Delhi Dynamos game. Then Alfaro's hand ball was unforgivable but then these worries compounded as Bengaluru FC took the lead on Monday through Sunil Chhetri, who was clearly offside.
The Manjappada Kerala Blasters Fans started a campaign called #GoodRefBannaPadega, demanding better referees for the ISL and even though DJ hasn't spoken out about the quality of refereeing, fans know that DJ is supporting them with his heart.
During his first stint as the manager, James realised that most players came in with a one-year contract and he made full use of that. But the scenario has changed now and teams have started to think about the long term.
This year, the team has a lot of youngsters - a few in their teens as well - and it's a nice platform to be in and develop as a player. These players will be a great asset for the club.
No marquee was signed this year too. Ordinary players become stars once they don the Kerala Blasters jersey. And needless to say, our Indians are lucky to have a legend like David James at the helm.
This year, the fans wanted to see more attacking football and James has obliged in the way he has tinkered with the team.
But more than anything, it's the wish of every Kerala Blasters to see the team win the ISL.
We have may lost against Bengaluru FC tonight but that belief is still there among the fans because they know that under the care of David James, Kerala Blasters can finally earn the coveted tag of the champions.
Kerala Blasters will rise.
(The author is a member of Manjappada, the Kerala Blasters fan group. The views expressed are his own.)