From The Stands (Chennai): Extra-time frenzy in a night of horror misses and bad momos
Two goals in six minutes after seven months without scoring is what football is all about!
I can’t seem to retrace when and where I saw this advertisement but here’s the essence of the story. The ad (narrated by a kid) was a story of some children who had formed a football club. But things don’t go their way. They kept losing all their matches. 8-0, 5-0, 7-0, 11-0… Until one fine day, something magical happened. They lost 6-1. Another loss, but they were happier than the team who actually won because THEY HAD ACTUALLY SCORED A GOAL!
If they ever plan to make a sequel to that ad (like they ruin most things these days), they should consider making it about Chennaiyin FC’s dry patch. That two minutes of unparalleled joy and the subsequent celebrations (till Hyderabad scored the equalizer) is what you go to football grounds for. Grown-up men crying and jumping in joy is alkali to neutralize the acidic, hyper-masculinity of the football world.
7 months of waiting for this moment!❤️,This is truly how much @chennaiyinfc means to me! I FREAKKING LOVE MY CLUB! It was so so hard for me to see my team fail from being Champions to last place in previous season!— Shaik Shahrukh Smokie (@fanofshaik) November 25, 2019
Thank you so much #CFCHFC#football #passion@bstandblues pic.twitter.com/jyVrpPl87y
Chennai’s match against Hyderabad had everything. Horrible misses (a lot that I’m contemplating writing another piece), non-existing defence, 18th century football and bad food (I PAID for stale momos). Football revolution in the country, right? But since we aren’t making a Cristopher Nolan film here, let me break this down in a chronological order.
An unexpected 30-min delay for the train meant I reached the stadium five minutes after the match had begun. Not like I was really rushing. Chennai were on a horrendous streak of form. They hadn’t scored a goal for seven months (including the off season) and hadn’t looked like a side who would score in the near future. Kerala Blasters coach Eelco Schattorie had talked about his side being jinxed but Chennai were the ones playing like they were.
But it is very hard to resist LIVE football so I decided to go to the match anyway. I didn’t bother to check the official attendance post-match but the turnout was pretty bleak even for Chennai standards. The B-Stand Blues had their quotas full. And opposite to them in the E stands were the Supermachans.
It is fascinating how the club with a small fan base (as opposed to the likes of Kerala Blasters, Bengaluru FC and the Kolkata giants) had still managed to split into two. “Our ideals vary but both set of fans are equally important for the team,” said a B-Stand Blue when I asked. I studied in a college where a prominent political party had six wings with separate ideologies. I totally buy into that argument.
What was going wrong with Chennai?
I wish I knew the answer. I wish John Gregory knew the answer. I wish the board knew the answer. And that was the most troubling point. What do you do when you do not know what to do (this is NOT a tongue twister)?
There was a clear lack of goals. Jeje Lalpheklua’s absence has certainly been a major factor. But the Chennai side has not look like a team waiting for the Mizo striker’s return to complete the jigsaw puzzle.
I have this habit of trying to think like the coach during the match. What substitution will I make? What will I chance in the formation? What will I tell the presenter post-match?
Here’s my note from the match:
JG – What am I doing here? I miss England. I should have left after winning the damn title. Nothing seems to be going right? What do I do to change this around?
Notice something? Even my imagination was struggling to find the answers to Chennai’s problems. Their foreign players had struggled to impress in the initial outings with Lucian Goain leading from the front (or the back?). The defender has been terrible and I’m not being unduly critical here. His dwindling pace was always going to be a problem but the big Romanian has struggled to physically compete in the league. I wish there was a stat you could dig up on the number of times he has to lunge into tackles. That’s a clear sign of desperation and something top defenders seldom do.
Barring an early chance for Lalrinzuala Chhangte, there nothing much in a dull half for Chennai. Playing against a Hyderabad FC, arguably the worst team in Indian Super League this season, meant Chennai weren’t short of chances. But Hyderabad had a wonderful chance themselves, with Robin Singh missing an absolute sitter which certainly catapulted him into the Lord Bendtner/Heskey category.
English coaches haven't exactly lit up the Indian leagues, have they? I can think of a few but John Gregory and Phil Brown had a similar strategy on the night - pass it to the wide men and get them to cross. Surely the sport has evolved from the 90s where this was the 'English' way of playing football. Mind you, even then it was the likes of David Beckham whipping in those crosses. What is the purpose of getting into the flanks to fire it inside aimlessly?
To sum it up, it was a horrible football match, with the bad defence getting opened up every five minutes only for bad finishing to save them from blushes. Just like the horrible momos I picked up in the half-time. Momos inside a sealed box always carried the risk of being stale. But I braved a football match between Chennai and Hyderabad. I thought things couldn’t possibly go further downhill.
Both teams had chances in the second half to win matches. There were horrible calls from the referees to add to the drama. But as the 90th minute approached the JLN stadium was swarmed by the familiar feeling of gloom.
That was until Anirudh Thapa decided to put in a long, hopeful ball into the box for Chennaiyin. Hyderabad's Mohammed Yasir was unable to deal with delivery and Chennai's Lithuanian Andre Schembri wrestled him to win the ball. The striker then managed to create room for himself to find a narrow gap between goalkeeper Kamaljit Singh and the near post.
The stadium erupted and that's saying something when most of it was empty. Everyone (including yours truly) was jumping in joy. A certain joy that can only by a sense of tragedy that had preceded it. This wasn't just another last-minute winner. This was a GOAL. After ages. There was a sense of relief with the Chennai fans relieved that they can laugh off that bad patch as something of that past.
But the match had only begun! Seconds later Hyderabad equalized through a Matthew Kilgallon header. Again, testimony to the horrible defending in the game, but there was more drama in an extra time period that just kept going on.
The twist in the twisted tale came when Nerijus Valskis had a quick one-two with Schembri before slotting it past Kamaljit in what turned out to be the last kick of the game.
The crowd couldn't believe what they had witnessed. A comedy of errors turning into a football classic in a matter of minutes. But that sums up football for you! The post-match celebration was equally fun with the players looking relieved more than anything else. Chennaiyin owner Abhishek Bachchan was present as well, wearing a Veshti, and fist-pumping with the fans.
It was wonderful to see the fans stay back in support of their beloved team but my favourite moment (beyond the six-minute frenzy) came prior to the presentation when the host shook hands with the Chennaiyin players and then slyly cleaned her hands by rubbing against the dress. I’d do exactly the same, sister!
Chennaiyin will face a decent Odisha FC squad in their next match in Chennai. A win will definitely rekindle their season. But the focus will now turn to the defence which has been poor. As for me, I’m heading to Kerala. I-League is kicking off on Sunday and I sure don’t want to miss a chance to watch this new-look Gokulam Kerala side from the stands.
From The Stands is a blog series by Kalpanthu’s Nevin Thomas who has been traveling across the country watching football matches. There is “something special” about watching a football match from the stands, he says.