ISL 2018: Extension offer in hand, Albert Roca leaves Bengaluru FC with his own stamp of success
A day after guiding Bengaluru FC to their fourth straight appearance in the knockout stages of the AFC Cup, Albert Roca has left his role as the manager, the club confirmed.
It was a two-year ride filled with ups and downs for the Spaniard, but he leaves the club as a father figure, one who instilled an identity for Bengaluru on the pitch, and most importantly, he leaves Bengaluru having achieved a few things that no manager of an Indian club had done before.
Roca was appointed in 2016, to replace Ashley Westwood, the club’s first ever manager, who had left behind a winning culture, and an unerring belief in the squad and in the stands, that no bridge was going to be too far for the Blues to conquer. Many believed that his successor had an impossible act to follow.
The belief only grew stronger when Bengaluru decided that the philosophy would change, from Westwood’s typical English methods to Roca’s methods - much from the Barcelona school of pass and move.
The difference could not be starker, and for Roca, it was straight into the deep end of the pool, with an AFC Cup knockout round to contend with, before he could set his sights on domestic football.
The start was as rocky as it could be for Roca and his time at Bengaluru. His first game, the AFC Cup quarterfinal first leg against Singapore’s Tampines Rovers, was ordered to be played behind closed doors at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium.
CK Vineeth’s goal was enough to win the first leg, and eventually, settle the tie after the Blues got themselves a goalless draw in Singapore.
Bengaluru were already in waters rarely tested by Indian clubs - reaching a continental semifinal, but in their way stood as stern a test as any in the competition - the defending champions from Malaysia, Johor Darul Ta’zim.
A combination of luck, brilliance from Amrinder Singh and magic from Eugeneson Lyngdoh ensured that Bengaluru left the Larkin Stadium with a 1-1 draw, with a priceless away goal.
That paved the way for one of the greatest nights in Bengaluru’s still short history, as a combination of Lyngdoh and club captain Sunil Chhetri put Johor to the sword, and gave Bengaluru a 3-1 win, ensuring a 4-2 win on aggregate.
After just four games in charge of Bengaluru, Roca had taken Indian football to truly uncharted waters, as no Indian club had made the final of an AFC Cup before that.
The final in Doha was a blur for Roca’s men, with the physical superiority of Iraq’s Air Force Club ensuring that Bengaluru could not impose their style on their opponents. They eventually lost only by a solitary goal, but the scoreline flattered Bengaluru, who were well and truly outplayed.
But those five games in the AFC Cup set the tone, in many ways, for Roca to implement his style, his philosophy at Bengaluru. It elevated the team’s stature on the pitch, but what followed in the 2017 I-League season is probably what will define Albert Roca and his time in India’s Garden City.
After a promising start to the campaign with three consecutive wins, the wheels just came off for Bengaluru. The Blues only picked up four points from their next seven league games, which meant that a chance to win a third league title in four years was effectively over.
In between that, there were also hiccups in the AFC Cup, with away losses to Mohun Bagan and Abahani Dhaka threatening to derail the entire season.
But it is to Roca’s utmost credit that even in those most desperate of times, he had an unwavering belief in his methods and that it would eventually bear fruit.
It was not going to be easy for even the players to transition to the methods that Roca was adopting. For the likes of Lenny Rodrigues, Harmanjot Khabra and Sandesh Jhingan, they were adapting to both a new environment at a new club and a completely alien style of football as well.
Roca needed time, and he got that time. There was no pressure from the Bengaluru management nor was there a current of discontent in the stands. The fans, at least a majority of them, were clear that if they could support the club through the hours of glory, they could stick with the club through the hours of grief when they were needed the most.
The ones that doubted Roca were only those that were still too emotionally attached to Westwood, and saw the difference in the characters and demeanours of the two men as the sole reason for the club’s failures. How wrong they would eventually be proved!
In the Federation Cup that followed, Roca kept up a proud Bengaluru tradition of winning a trophy every season, but it was a trophy that meant a huge deal for Roca, for BFC and for the fans.
It was a pathway to be in Asian competition again, something the Blues have come to treasure, and they were not going to let go of it too soon. Not even the stifling heat and humidity of Cuttack was going to stop them in their quest, not even an injury to the talismanic Chhetri was going to stop them.
The I-League champions were disposed off in the semifinal and their big rivals Mohun Bagan were seen off in the final, with a Vineeth brace.
Chhetri’s free-kick against Maziya a couple of weeks later had also taken Bengaluru to another knockout round in the AFC Cup.
But that was when the actual test started for Roca. Bengaluru had moved to the ISL, and due to the vagaries of the regulations, they had to build a squad from scratch.
Lenny, Khabra, Nishu Kumar and Lalthuammawia Ralte stayed, along with Chhetri, Udanta Singh and John Johnson to ensure that the core of the squad remained intact, but with a completely new team, in a different competition, it was not going to be easy.
But what followed was Roca’s Bengaluru in all its glory. It had taken a year, but Bengaluru had well and truly transitioned from Westwood to now being Roca’s Bengaluru.
Despite heartache in the inter-zonal final of the AFC Cup, the Blues showed their class in the ISL in their first attempt at the competition.
In the 18-game league phase, they dropped only 14 points, finishing eight points ahead of the nearest competitors, and making the final in their debut season.
The final ended in heartbreak at their own fortress, but that was not going to stop Roca’s men, who had had a 15-game unbeaten run snapped in that final.
It was their biggest game of the season, but for Roca, the loss changed nothing, his methods would not change.
A month later, a near-perfect campaign in the Super Cup saw that proud trophy tradition at Bengaluru being kept up, but as usual, the season would eventually be decided by the Blues’s favourite competition - the AFC Cup.
Eventually, they eked out wins with second-string sides early on in the competition, they were humbled at near full-strength in the Maldives by New Radiant. And then on the final day, they had a humongous favour thrown at them by Aizawl FC, who beat Radiant and gave Bengaluru a knockout stage spot.
But what should not be forgotten in the high of qualification is that Bengaluru had their highest ever points total in an AFC Cup group stage in their four years of playing in the competition.
And now, the manager who led them to that feat has decided that he has had enough. Albert Roca leaves Bengaluru now, but he leaves as a hero, a father figure.
Ashley Westwood had left Roca with a tough act to follow. Roca has left his successor with an even tougher act to follow.
Until that successor is found, this is Albert Roca’s Bengaluru FC. Maybe, they would always want it to be Albert Roca’s Bengaluru FC. He brought them immense joy, after all.