The final whistle blows. The scoreline on the electronic board reads, 0-1. The opponents throw their arms in the air, in celebration. The West Block Blues applaud their team off the pitch. Everyone heads to the exit gates.
We, the West Block Blues, are the faithful, religious fans of Bengaluru FC. We had just witnessed our team lose their second match in-a-row in the AFC Cup Group Stage. Although we just lost the match, there was a sense of satisfaction among the West Block Blues. We had lost to a really tough opponent, Johor Darul Ta’zim of Malaysia, The defending champions of the AFC Cup. We were proud that we didn’t go down without a fight. It was early March and the Season had just begun.
As I was heading back home, I had a moment of reminiscence. About 2 years ago, I had been to my first Bengaluru FC match. The club was newly formed that year and it had already started making all the right noises in the news. The West Block Blues, however small, were heard and loved by the players. My first game ended 1-1, but the entire match experience felt like a win. That point was crucial on that day as we went on to win the I-league that season. The First Club Ever to win the I-League in their Debut Season. The first of many ‘The First Club Ever to…’ records.
Ashley Westwood was the man behind the team. He was the Head Coach of Bengaluru FC. From setting up a new club, he took the team to glory like it was our birth-right. We won the I-league (2013-14) and the Federation Cup (2014-15), and who could forget the heart-breaking 1-1 loss (Yes, a loss) to Mohun Bagan on that fateful 31st of May last year, when Bagan clinched the I-league with a late goal.
We had come a long way from our not-so-humble beginnings to a proud loss to Johor Darul Ta’zim [JDT]. At the beginning of the season, Westwood was clear about what he wanted to achieve. He said Win-Win-Quarterfinals. Win the I-League. Win the Federation cup. Reach the Quarterfinals of the AFC Cup.
After the loss to JDT, Westwood galvanised the team with a steely determination as we started winning comfortably in the league. We went on to win 3 matches in-a-row in the AFC Cup to qualify for the knockout stages. We went on to win the League with a match to spare as we lifted the trophy at Kolkata against Mohun Bagan (Sweet revenge for last season). We did not do as well in the federation cup and lost in the first round.
By the time we won the league, rumors were rife that Westwood might not accept a contract renewal. We, the fans, however, weren’t ready to believe the rumors one bit. For us, ‘Ashley Westwood’ meant ‘BFC’ and ‘BFC’ meant ‘Ashley Westwood’. There was no time for distractions, as we were preparing for the Pre-Quarterfinals of the AFC Cup against Kitchee FC of Hong Kong.
On 25th May, we took the field to face Kitchee FC.
They take an early lead with a simple goal. 0-1. We can’t afford to lose this. Eugeneson goes down in the box. Penalty. Sunil Chhetri scores a panenka. Pirlo who? 2 mins later, the ball falls kindly to Chhetri. He half-volleys it into the goal. 2-1. Kitchee FC equalise just before Half Time. 2-2. HT. End to End stuff. Chance for BFC. We miss. Chance for BFC. We miss. Chance for BFC. 18-year old Daniel Lalhlimpuia scores. 3-2. FT.
We have done it. We have reached the Quarterfinals of the AFC Cup, only in the 3rd year of our club. This team is something special. Special players. Special coach. Special fans.
The win was slowly sinking in until the cursed, fateful 31st of May reared its ugly head AGAIN.
As the May 31st’ morning sun rose, Bengaluru FC issued a statement on their website and on social media. It read, ‘Ashley Westwood parts ways with the club by mutual consent’.
Surely it has got to be a joke. The signs were there. We hadn’t paid heed to it. Ashley Westwood was not Bengaluru FC’s coach anymore. It happened too quickly, like the proverbial band-aid being ripped off. We were forced to swallow the proverbial bitter pill and we didn’t even get to give him a fitting farewell.
The club has always done the right things and has been heading in the right direction. We did not have a coach anymore. The pioneer of our club, Ashley Westwood, isn’t pioneering anymore. The future looks hazy. What next? Who next?
Ashley Westwood’s BFC,
we are on our way to glory.
Built the team from scratch, he did.
Our kids will have a story.
A month passed by before we heard anything from the club about our next head coach. When they did announce, it was going to be a former FC Barcelona assistant coach, Albert Roca. Immediately, the changes came around. We had signed 3 new foreign players while 3 others were released. Albert Roca and the new players’ first competitive match was going to be the AFC Cup Quarterfinals. There was no hiding place. It was going to be the proverbial Agnipariksha (Test by Fire).
I, personally, felt skeptical about our chances. New players, New staff, New methods. ‘Don’t fix what’s not broken’ Right? So I thought. Quarterfinals came about and we huffed and puffed, and eventually came through with a 1-0 aggregate win. We were through to the Semifinals of the AFC Cup. One of the top 4 in the second-tier continental cup. What an achievement it was already! For some reason, maybe because of our Ashley Westwood-instilled-mentality, we weren’t content with just the semifinals. We wanted more. We always want more. Who are we facing in the semifinals, you ask? Well, the Defending Champions of the AFC Cup, the team which has beaten us 3 times already in our short history, Malaysian champions, Johor Darul Ta’zim.
We meet again.
On 28th September, we went to Malaysia and held them to a 1-1 draw courtesy of some Eugeneson Magic. The away goal gave us the advantage that we were looking to bring to the second leg. If that wasn’t enough, JDT’s 3 key players were suspended from playing the second leg due to collecting too many yellow cards.
The semifinal is ours to lose now. The 2nd leg is going to be at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium. There is a buzz in the city about the game. The famed, West Block A stand is sold out a week before the game. With a day to go for the match, the entire stadium gets Sold Out.
It’s Matchday and the excitement is palpable. The Defending Champions have come to town to take on the Mighty Blues.
The crowd is at its boisterous best in the buildup to the match. The teams walk on to the pitch. They shake each other’s hands. The whistle blows. Both the teams are nervous on the ball, they misplace passes. Bengaluru FC lose the ball cheaply. Johor Darul Ta’zim Counter attack at pace. JDT forwards exchange a quick 1-2. BFC defence is split open. Their shot is parried weakly by Amrinder Singh. The ball loops up and goes into our own goal. 0-1. The Away Goal advantage is lost 10 minutes into the match. The crowd starts getting behind the team. Bengaluru FC players start passing the ball around. They get into a rhythm. Eugene crosses the ball. Juanan heads it. It’s saved. Eugene Crosses again. Rino Anto shoots. Saved. Eugene’s corner falls to Chhetri. Shot parried back to Nishu. Nishu shoots. Saved. Falls to Chhetri. He hits the crossbar. Chance after chance goes begging. Half Time fast approaching, we get a corner. Eugeneson takes it. Sunil Chhetri gets his head in the right place. Powerful header. The ball hits the back of the net. Equaliser. 1-1 and we are back in the game. HT. 1-1.
After a quick breather, the action resumes. BFC are dominating on the ball, constantly looking for openings but with no luck. At this rate it will be Extra time and penalties. Nobody wants that. We don’t know who to look up to. Someone has to step up and change the game for us. CK Vineeth gets the ball with his back facing the goal with 40 yards between him and the goal. He turns and runs at the defence. Sunil Chhetri is open on the left-wing. Vineeth spots him and slides the ball to Chhetri. If he can control the pass, a shot can be taken. Chhetri’s touch takes the ball away from goal. JDT defenders rush past him to have more players between the ball and the goal, but little did they know, it did not matter where they stood on the pitch. For that next few brief seconds, 21379 people sitting in the stands and the 22 players on the pitch became mere spectators. Everyone held their breath. Could it be possible? Yes. YES, IT WAS! The ball bulged the net and it is the winner from the sweet, sweet right foot of Captain, Sunil Chhetri. Stunned silence was quickly replaced with deafening noise. This was 21 thousand spectators, young and old, men and women, rich and poor, screaming, like they would never have, in joy, in ecstasy and in unison. Pure unadulterated joy with what they have been a witness to. If you hadn’t known before, you had experienced it now. This is Football.
We went on to score one more, coming from the head of Juanan González, just to be sure. FT. 3-1.
We are now the First Indian Club to reach the Finals of the AFC Cup. Add one more to list.
On November 5th at Doha, Qatar. Bengaluru FC of India will take the field to face Air Force Club of Iraq in the Finals of the AFC Cup.
This is for Ashley Westwood. This is for Sunil Chhetri. This is for Indian Football.
This. Is. For. Bengaluru.
All photos are courtesy of the West Block Blues Fan contribution on their Facebook page.