Hope, mishap and misery: Kerala Blasters’ Eelco Schattorie battling success-hungry fans and an injury-plagued team
Why Kerala Blasters coach Eelco Schattorie is under pressure to deliver for the Kerala team this Indian Super League season
Former NorthEast United coach Eelco Schattorie has had a difficult start to his life in Kerala - DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP via Getty Images
In August, there was hope. Kerala Blasters had signed Dutch coach Eelco Schattorie from rival club NorthEast United. A host of established players such as Bartholomew Ogbeche, Mario Arques and Sergio Cidoncha followed the coach to the southern city. Kerala’s vociferous fans, the Manjappada, were jubilant again after a season of mishaps that saw the team sacking their head coach David James and fans boycotting matches.
In September, there was a mishap. ‘Unprofessionalism’ by tournament promoters had led to Kerala cancelling their pre-season tournament in UAE and returning to Kochi. ‘Unfortunate’, said the fans, but there was still some optimism.
In October, there was misery. An injury to centre-back Sandesh Jhingan rocked coach Schattorie’s pre-season plans as Kerala was forced into altering the team’s dynamics. An opening day victory against rivals ATK quelled a few concerns but deflating losses against Mumbai City FC and new-comers Hyderabad FC, and injuries to star players Mario Arques and Gianni Zuiverloon mean Kerala are back in a situation that is all too familiar to them – chaos.
When Kerala Blasters take on Odisha FC on Friday, it won’t be just three points at stake. A manager, who stresses on playing with an 'identity', will now be battling against time, as a success-hungry audience wait impatiently for better football.
The Sahal factor
In the first two matches of the season, Kerala’s Dutch coach opted for a 4-3-3 formation which saw Kerala-born Sahal Abdul Samad missing from the starting line-up. The young midfielder, who had a phenomenal rise in the previous season, had been touted to star for Kerala in ISL 6 but the manager’s decision to drop him for a more defensively-sound midfielder raised a few eyebrows. The news didn’t get much limelight on the first day thanks to Kerala’s victory against ATK but the midfielder’s absence became evident in the 1-0 loss against Mumbai where Kerala struggled.
With wingers Halicharan Narzary and Prasanth K offering very little in attack, questions were raised about Schattorie’s decision to bench Sahal. The talented midfielder got his start in Kerala’s match against Hyderabad FC, and got himself an assist too, but a loss against the unfancied newcomers into the ISL prompted a mini social media outrage, especially questioning the coach’s decision to substitute Sahal.
The outrage was something coach Schattorie had foreseen. The Kerala midfielder is the poster boy of Indian football. Sahal is in fact as prominent as Sunil Chhetri himself in all the Indian Super League advertisements. Big hoardings with the player's photos are prevalent across Kerala. Nita Ambani even stressed his name in the opening ceremony of the tournament. Schattorie’s decision to not play him would have only been justified through wins and that hasn’t, unfortunately, come his way.
The waiting game
Patience will be the keyword floating around the Kerala Blasters’ camp now. Will the management resist the urge to sack the coach if he doesn’t deliver results in a few more matches? After all, bigger names, such as fellow countryman René Meulensteen and former England goalkeeper David James (in his second attempt) couldn’t complete a full season.
But the Blasters only need to look at how other ISL clubs have benefitted by showing faith in their managers. FC Goa, arguably the best team in the league right now, has reaped rewards in keeping hold of coach Sergio Lobera. Similarly, Bengaluru FC have only had three coaches since their inception in 2013. In Eelco Schattorie Kerala has signed the services of a proven coach in the Indian Leagues having led an unfancied NorthEast United side to a playoff berth last season. Unfortunately for Kerala, the Dutch coach is a practitioner of Cruyffian school of thought where ‘how’ football is played is as important as the result. The pragmatism takes a second seat with such managers and their effort can only be truly judged in a period of time. Will the Blasters management wait that long, especially if the results aren’t going their way, is the biggest question. For now, they face an Odisha FC side in peak form after having beaten Mumbai City FC 4-2 in their previous encounter.