Enter the Ghorpad

It’s a good feeling to beat the defending champions 4-1 and have a great chance of finishing 2nd in the league. No, my brains are not (yet) completely fried by the Indian summer heat or by Liverpool’s underwhelming season causing me to talk about a game at Old Trafford more than a year ago as if it happened last week.

I am, instead, referring to Pune FC’s rousing win over defending I-league champions Churchill FC last Thursday in its last home game of I-league 2009-10. A victory that I was lucky to savour from the not-exactly Maracana-esque Balewadi stadium. A victory that lifted it to second place on the table with one game to go, 2 points clear of Churchill though the Goans have an additional game in hand.

A journey that began on an extremely wet October evening in 2009 as Pune FC made its debut in the I-league with a home game against one of India’s marquee football names (East Bengal), looks likely to have a fairy tale ending with possible qualification for continental football.

Who would have predicted the current position when the club had only managed 6 draws and 2 defeats in its first 8 games (out of only 26), to leave it flirting with relegation? But even in that initial period of bad results, the team showed enormous promise with its compact defense and quick attacking play and fans soon warmed up to players such as Subrata Paul, Shanmugam Venkatesh the team captain, Sergey Tokov (Uzbekistan), Izumi Arata (a Japanese PIO), Edmar Figuera (Brazil), Chika Wali (Nigeria), Jeje Lalpekhlua and Djidjia Pierre Douhou (Ivory Coast).

It was after the I-league took a break for the Federation cup in November-December and resumed in January 2010 that Pune’s season really took off. Three consecutive away victories – against JCT, Salgaocar and Viva-Kerala – gave the team the confidence it needed to go with its play. This was followed by a home win (against Chirag) and a draw (against mighty Mahindra Utd). Then came the icing on the cake – an away victory and draw against the traditional Kolkota giants (East Bengal and Mohun Bagan respectively).

That run of 17 points from an available 21 put them firmly in the top half of the table, when the ides of March struck and they lost two games on the bounce (away to Shillong and Air India). Following that April was a month for consolidation with 2 wins and 3 draws, setting them up for the May assault on the top regions of the table. The three games in May so far have seen them beat JCT 2-0, Sporting Clube de Goa 4-0 and now Churchill 4-1.

This leaves them on 41 points from 25 games, with Churchill on 39 from 24 (the spare game being away at East Bengal) and Mahindra United (who have been kind of in free fall ever since announcing the disbandment of the club after this season) on 38 after 25 games. Dempo, of course, have already won the title with a massive 53 points from 25 games and await Pune in their last engagement at Goa on 26th May. Depending on whether Dempo will want to sign off with a victory in front of their home fans and give it their all, or adopt true Goan Susegad and coast their way through what would be a meaningless game for them, will determine how easy it would be for Pune to finish 2nd in I-league 2009-10.

But whatever happens, it will have been a fairy-tale year for Pune FC (or the Ghorpads as I would like to christen them, given the monitor lizard in their crest). A lot of the credit should, of course, go to manager/coach Derick Pereira who had earlier done wonders with Mahindra UnitedWhich, like it did for Liverpool this year, will make next year really tough what with all the expectations it brings. But isn’t that what teams and clubs play for – to continually try and better not only others but more crucially themselves?

One thing I really hope Pune betters themselves at next year would be in their T-shirt sales mechanism. After promising myself that I’ll buy their T-shirt once they win their first I-league game (remember they started with an 8-game win-less streak), I can’t seem to buy their T-shirt for love or money at the stadium where their outlets either don’t have my size or the colour I want. Oh well, I guess, they are just being typical Puneris.

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