ISL 2018-19: Kerala Blasters did not heed Dimitar Berbatov's Warning on David James
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the website)
Midway through the 2017-18 Indian Super League (ISL) season, Kerala Blasters FC coach Rene Meulensteen was sacked after a loss to Bengaluru FC on New Year’s Eve. He was replaced by David James, the former England and Liverpool goalie.
Oops….hang on! Hit-pause, rewind a little to the point when Rene Meulensteen was appointed the head coach.
July 14, 2017 - It’s a big day in Kerala, especially for the Blasters fans. The former assistant of Sir Alex Fergusson at Manchester United is appointed the head coach of KBFC! They announce it via their social media handle.
August 23, 2017 - Another big day for Kerala! After days of intense speculation, the club announces the signing of Bulgarian legend Dimitar Berbatov. KBFC had previously signed Wes Brown, another Manchester United veteran.
These signings sent the fans into a frenzy. The heroes were new CEO Varun Tripuraneni and Rene himself!
But things didn’t turn out as planned. They had a torrid pre-season, drawing against 4th and 5th division Spanish sides.
Then the league started. The first three games ended in draws, while in the fourth game against Goa, they were thrashed 5-2.
The players responded with wins over Northeast United and arch-rivals Chennaiyin FC, but then they succumbed to Bengaluru FC 3-0 on December 31, which marked the end of the former Fulham boss’ short reign at the Kochi-based side. Berbatov was little visible in the field in all these games, a mere shadow of his former self.
Rene v Jhingan
Rene Meulensteen was sacked on January 3, 2018, and was replaced by former boss David James. But what was more interesting than the sudden ouster of the coach and the arrival of James were the shocking accusations made by Meulensteen to the media, which were mainly directed at the club captain and star defender Sandesh Jhingan.
Meulensteen accused that after the Goa game, he found Jhingan drinking and partying until 4 am in the morning.
Meanwhile, the die-hard fans of the Blasters had lost their trust in coach Meulensteen. They backed Jhingan. So the matter ended there with Rene Meulensteen returning to Europe with bitter humiliation. He certainly hadn’t enjoyed much of this trip.
During this episode, I smelt a rat. I felt somewhere, something was going wrong. After all, Rene was known as an honest man. He had been sacked in the past too - twice - at Fulham and Maccabi Haifa.
But never had he put the blame on some other person, particularly a player. Also, he served under Sir Alex for years and had a good reputation at the Old Trafford and among the United fans across the globe. Understandably, my first thought was that something must definitely be wrong.
David James took charge but the performance didn't really improve. If it did, Iain Hume was back! In any way, they finished sixth at the end of the regular season.
When James was handed charge of the team, it was assumed that he is just a care-taker manager who would leave at the end of the season. Instead, the club management announced that DJ, as his initials are, had signed a contract which would keep him at Kochi till 2021!
David James v Dimitar Berbatov
Many Blasters' fans were quite satisfied, though, as he had provided the desired results. Remember, DJ had led the team to the finals in the inaugural season.
But one person who was not happy at all was Dimitar Berbatov. Berba left the club at the end of a ‘disastrous’ season, never to return again. It was basically the end of the Bulgarian legend’s career.
But that was not really what Indian football fans focused on. What grabbed the attention was an Instagram story by Berba.
“'Chip the ball to the striker’s chest and we take it from there’. Who plays like that?” It was a direct attack on DJ’s tactics.
Again, Berba was not a fan favourite at Kochi and the fans backed DJ instead. They didn't know what was going to happen in the 2018-19 season after all. They instead lashed out at Berbatov on social media!
Drinking on one side, bad game tactics on the other!
This season, KBFC gave all they had to those bad tactics - ’Chip the ball to the striker’s chest and we take it from there’. And unfortunately for DJ, the Blasters' fans noticed this time!
But it was already too late. Sacking DJ is of no use, now. Berba might be having a laugh back in Bulgaria!
'His word against mine'
What of the drinking episode?
It could be the reason for Jhingan and Co’s lack of focus and consistency this season. If that is so, it is shocking because it happened all under DJ’s nose. We can only pray that Rene’s accusations are false.
But I fear the worst. As I said, Rene Meulensteen is a very reputed coach.
It is high time that the CEO and his associates wake up! Blasters need a formidable coach on a long-term basis. He should not only be able to turn around the results but also fill in the discipline lapses in his team!