Kerala, often known as the 'cradle of Indian football', has produced several legendary international players. So, when Kerala Blasters FC came into existence, they got a lot of hype. And with their association with the legendary Sachin Tendulkar, the hype only doubled.
During the initial years of the Indian Super League (ISL), the Tuskers were expected to dominate the tournament with the likes of the then-ATK and FC Goa, courtesy of the trio’s long-standing football heritage. And while the Kolkata-based outfit and the Gaurs have lived up to the expectations, the Blasters have underachieved massively.
The Yellow Army showed a lot of promise in their first three seasons, reaching the finals twice in 2014 and 2016. But the recent three campaigns have been mediocre, where they failed to qualify for the playoffs in each. The Kerala Blasters have struggled for consistency due to the constant chopping and changing of managers and players to suit their evolving playing style.
But that doesn't take away the fact that the Kerala Blasters are the most followed team in ISL. They boast of an ever-loyal fan base that can give the European fans a run for their money.
Kerala’s resurgence is in full swing this time around as they have assembled a well-balanced squad under the watchful eyes of Kibu Vicuna. For the first time in many years, they look as the overwhelming favorites to seal a play-off spot.
Over the years, some notable players have donned the club’s iconic yellow shirt. Without further ado, here's the all-time XI of Kerala Blasters in the ISL era:
GK - Sandip Nandy
Goalkeepers often have a long shelf life and the 45-year-old shot-stopper from West Bengal best exemplified this maxim. The former gloveman of Subhas Bhowmick's all-conquering East Bengal team made a total of 18 appearances for the Blasters and kept seven clean-sheets. The veteran custodian conceded only 14 goals during his time at Kerala Blasters, which was less than a goal per game.
With foreign keepers ruling the roost at the club for the first three years, Nandy wasn't the preferred starter between the sticks. But, whenever he was given a chance, he excelled.
Despite boasting of a career-best save percentage of 89.28 % in his maiden season, his most memorable performances for the club came in the 2016 season. Nandy saved all three penalties in the shoot-out against Delhi Dynamos in the semifinals to steer Kerala Blasters to their second final.
RB - Sandesh Jhingan
A Kerala Blasters team without Sandesh Jhingan was considered impossible until the man himself decided to depart earlier this year.
Despite so, the lanky defender’s inclusion in Kerala Blasters' all-time XI is a no-brainer. The bearded, tough-tackling defender generated a stellar fan following and became a household name in Kerala during his six-year stint.
Despite the heartbreaking defeats, poor recent results, and a revolving door of managers, Jhingan remained a constant at the club. He started by winning the Emerging Player of the Year award in 2014 and soon became one of the first names on the team sheet after solid displays at the back. His performances in the yellow paved the way for a call-up to the national team and Jhingan hasn't looked back since.
The 26-year-old is the most capped player of the club with a record 76 ISL appearances to his name. During his time at the club, the former skipper made 93 interceptions, 97 blocks, 194 tackles, and a staggering 502 clearances.
He has showcased his versatility in the flanks, and can seamlessly slot to right-back if required. The towering defensive lynchpin is also a threat from set-pieces and is comfortable going forward.
CB - Aaron Hughes
The Northern Irish ace was Kerala Blasters' marquee signing for ISL 2016 and was handed the captain's armband upon his arrival. A robust defender who is never shy to make a tackle or two, the former Newcastle United defender established a rock-solid partnership with Cedric Hengbart. The duo used all their experience to marshal the likes of Sandesh Jhingan and Pratik Chowdhary through games.
The nearly error-free defender added much-needed composure to the Kerala Blasters backline and dispossessed opponents with ease. In the course of the season, he made 11 appearances and along with making 55 clearances, 9 interceptions, 15 blocks, and 5 tackles, he also slotted home a goal.
Amid scoring the least goals by any team in the league, Kerala's formidable defense single-handedly got them through to the semis, as they conceded only 15 goals in the league stage. Whenever he was away on national duty, Kerala Blasters' defense struggled and looked leaderless.
CB - Cedric Hengbart
Cedric Hengbart was a vocal presence in the Kerala Blasters' defense and played a huge role in the team reaching the showpiece twice. The Frenchman's partnership with Aaron Hughes in 2016 will forever be remembered as one of the best center-back pairings in the history of the league.
A highly adaptable defender, Hengbart’s positioning, game reading and pace made him a handful for any opposition. The highly experienced ball-playing defender had an array of passes in him, which allowed him to initiate quick counter-attacks. The 40-year-old played a total of 30 matches for the Kochi-based outfit and boasted of an impressive attacking tally for a defender, scoring once and registering four assists.
LB - Lalruatthara
Lalruatthara was snapped up by Kerala Blasters ahead of the 2017-18 campaign after his prolific displays in Aizawl FC's storied I-League triumph. The Mizoram speedster justified his hype by managing 85 tackles - the most by any Indian player that season. He capped off the season with the Emerging Player of the Season award.
He extended his fine run of form into the following season and became an automatic pick for Kerala Blasters. Ill-timed injuries hampered his 2019-20 campaign as he could feature in only three games.
Regardless, Lalruatthara is undisputedly the best left-back to feature for the yellow brigade so far. After recovering from injury, he is finding his feet slowly. The 25-year-old will look to have a more telling impact in the 2020-21 season of the ISL.
CDM - Mehtab Hossain
The Kerala Blasters management showed immense faith in Indian football's kingpin Mehtab Hossain's unquestioned abilities by drafting him as their first-ever pick during the inaugural ISL draft in 2014. The tough-as-nails player, Mehtab lived up to his 'Indian Claude Makelele' moniker with ferocious tackling and exceptional work-rate.
Mehtab Hossain was peerless in his position as he made the central defensive midfielder role his own at the club. The holding midfielder achieved a unique distinction of starting in all of his 38 games for Kerala Blasters.
During his time at the club, Hossain not only held together the Blasters midfield but also provided a stout shield to the defense behind him, relieving pressure and regularly fending off counter-attacks. The defensive anchor-man spent three years at Kerala before leaving for Jamshedpur FC in 2017 for his final swan song.
RM - CK Vineeth
The Kannur native was truly at home while donning the iconic yellow. CK Vineeth had an unpredictable form but mostly turned up in big matches, nicking goals when his side needed him the most. In his 43 appearances for the club, the pace merchant has scored 11 goals and created a further three, playing in a variety of positions.
After an underwhelming debut season in 2015, where he failed to score a goal in nine outings, Vineeth turned it around in the following season, striking five goals. He powered Kerala Blasters to their second final and ended up as the top Indian goal scorer. He was similarly productive in 2017-18, scoring four times. The 2018-19 season was his last for the Kochi-based club, where he was sent out on loan to Chennaiyin FC for the second half of the season.
LM - Josu Prieto Currais
The Spanish journeyman spent only two years in India before moving on to greener pastures but still managed to etch his name in every nook and corner of the football-crazy state of Kerala. A product of Spanish giants FC Barcelona's famed La Masia academy, Josu quickly established himself as an integral component of Kerala Blasters' midfield in his debut campaign.
The young midfield maestro provided three assists and scored a screamer against NorthEast United FC. He was subsequently shifted to left-back on Steve Coppell's arrival in 2016. The 27-year-old featured in all 14 matches, helping Coppell shore up the defense as Kerala Blasters made it to another ISL final.
Despite leaving the club after the 2016 season, Josu Currais remains its top-assist maker (6) to this date, even after spending just two seasons at the club.
Josu remains one of the best utility players to have ever set foot in the Indian top-flight. Irrespective of the position he played, the Spaniard excelled amazingly.
CAM - Iain Hume
Iain Hume made the biggest impact in yellow than any other foreign import and left a lasting legacy. He was Kerala's first bonafide superstar. The ageless wonder came on as a random foreigner but when the season ended, he was celebrated as a cult hero.
Iain Hume was Kerala Blasters' top scorer and was voted the Best Player of the inaugural season of ISL. The Canadian's style of play resonated highly with the fans. He was the most hardworking player on the pitch. He was the one who made things happen as he ran tirelessly, helped out everywhere he can, found teammates with ease, and scored crucial goals.
The stadium began chanting in support of Kerala's beloved 'Humettan' whenever he received the ball during games. The fearless footballer was adored on and off the field.
Hume played a total of 28 matches for Kerala Blasters, racking up ten goals and recording 3 assists. He was also their first-ever hat-trick hero and their all-time top-scorer until CK Vineeth and Bartholomew Ogbeche claimed the record for themselves later. Hume is also the only player to score three hat-tricks in the history of the ISL.
Much to the delight of the fans, Hume returned to Kerala Blasters in the summer of 2017. But the reunion didn't work out as planned as injuries marred his involvement in the crucial stages of the season. Despite a disappointing end, Hume still finished as the top scorer of Kerala Blasters with five goals from 13 games.
CF: Bartholomew Ogbeche
Bartholomew Ogbeche signed for the Blasters after a phenomenal debut ISL campaign at NorthEast United. Ogbeche captained the side in Jhingan's absence and turned out to be a roaring success. The Nigerian striker led from the front, scoring 15 goals and providing a solitary assist in 16 games. The 35-year-old's exploits saw him scoring more than half of the team's goals.
These numbers look even impressive when one considers the fact that his 15-goal effort was more than enough to surpass CK Vineeth as Kerala Blasters' all-time top scorer in just a single season. Ogbeche's whirlwind campaign was a much-needed boost for the Kerala Blasters fanbase who was disappointed seeing their club struggle to score goals.
CF - Mohammed Rafi
The beloved Keralite was roped in by Kerala Blasters after his commendable performances for the title-winning ATK side. The striker was an instant hit, scoring on his debut against NEUFC.
Renowned for his aerial prowess in the opposition penalty box, Mohammed Rafi stayed true to his ‘Head Master’ moniker by scoring all of his four goals for Kerala Blasters in 2016 through headers. He was also on target in the final of ISL 2016, which Kerala Blasters lost on penalties against ATK. The striker returned to the club last season but injuries limited his appearances. Rafi has scored six goals and registered three assists across his two spells for Kerala Blasters.
Head Coach: Steve Coppell
Steve Coppell is a straightforward choice to take charge of the all-time XI of Kerala Blasters, as he has the best win percentage (41.18) among all KBFC managers to boot.
The efficient Scouser took charge of Kerala Blasters after their disastrous show in the second season of the ISL when they finished at the bottom of the points table. Amid limited resources, he steered the Blasters to the ISL final, only to lose by penalties against Kolkata.
During his time in Kochi, the former Manchester City boss led his team in 17 matches, winning seven and losing six.Published 22 Nov 2020, 01:48 IST