The Yellow Brigade- Manjappada, superfans of the club Kerala Blasters and their passion is something that seldom goes unnoticed in the Indian Super League. And this season is not going to be any different. United by a common bond of football in general and Kerala Blasters in particular, the Manjappada has gone on to make, not just Kochi, but any stadium the Blasters play as their home territory. With just a few days left to another ISL season, our correspondent Pranay Rajiv takes a look into the phenomenon that is Manjappada through a conversation with Ashwin R Chandran, a Manjappada State Core member.
Pranay Rajiv (PR): One of the biggest strengths of Kerala Blasters has always been the unending support provided by the Manjappada. But this time the team has to play without its famous 12th man. How do you guys plan to support the Blasters in these extraordinary circumstances?
Ashwin R Chandran (ARC): No matter how far away from home the team plays, Manjappada will continue to support the club in all possible ways. Yes, considering the circumstances, we cannot show our support in the stands. However, we have planned other initiatives to show our support to the team. We have come up with a new program called Flags for All and Banners everywhere that focuses on providing our support to the club from our homes.
PR: KBFC is supposed to have the most valuable squad in this edition of ISL. How satisfied are you guys with the transfer activities this time out?
ARC: We are very satisfied with our signings this year. The club has shown a lot of professionalism this year right from the appointment of a sporting director. We are confident that they have put together a strong squad.
PR: With the tournament being played out behind closed doors, how much do you think it will affect player performances, especially that of Kerala Blaster players who are used to playing in front of a packed house?
ARC: The support in the stands always plays a huge role in any game. It is unfortunate that the team will miss that this year. However, we are confident that the team will do well and that we will also provide as much support as we can from our homes.
PR: With Covid-19 pandemic affecting almost all wakes of our life, how have you guys stayed connected and kept members of your community enthusiastic about the much delayed ISL tournament?
ARC: We operate primarily through WhatsApp and other social platforms to stay connected with our members. We have been organizing virtual events for each district to keep the members active and connected.
PR: The arrival of Mohun Bagan and East Bengal has further solidified the status of ISL as the premier Football tournament of our nation. How do you think their arrival will change the dynamics of the league?
ARC: Both Mohun Bagan and East Bengal are huge clubs and their entry will definitely benefit the league. The competition now gets tougher and that is a positive sign.
PR: Both these teams (Mohun Bagan and East Bengal) are world-renowned for their fanatical fans. How much of a challenge do you think the supporters of these 2 clubs will pose to Manjappada’s status as the best fan support group in ISL?
ARC: We did not start supporting our club with the aim of being the best fan club in the country. Our aim is and will always be to support Kerala Blasters through thick and thin. It is good to have some competition from fan clubs of these legacy clubs. We do not see it as a challenge. We only see it as a way for Indian Football to move forward.
PR: With both Ogbeche and Jhingan departing the club, the club needs someone to step up as a leader of men. Who do you think from among the core team would suit this particular role?
ARC: We do not want to put this pressure on one single player. Like our coach Kibu said, the greatest player in the team is the team itself. We love all our players equally and we want all of them to have a great season.
PR: With a strong Malayalee representation in the KBFC squad, who all could possibly become a regular starter for the team or who do you think will go on to showcase the footballing skills of Kerala at the biggest stage in India?
ARC: All Malayalee players are equally talented. The best thing to do as a fan club is to avoid putting unnecessary pressure on these youngsters. All of them be it Hakku, Sahal, Prashant, Arjun, or Rahul are very talented and we want all of them to do really well.
PR: With the league becoming bigger and better with the additions of new teams, which other teams do you guys consider as potential title contenders for this season?
ARC: All teams have put a formidable squad this season. On paper, Mumbai and ATK look the strongest and there is no point denying it. However, we expect every match to be challenging.
PR: There has been an increased professional attitude from the management part with several key players being provided with long term contracts. The signing of young, talented AFC affiliated player in the form of Jordan Murray also displays a sense of long term planning. This is a significant departure from previous seasons, where the team was riddled by the management’s lack of vision. How satisfied is Manjappada with these changes and happenings? Where do you think there is scope for improvement in the management of the club?
ARC: We are very happy with the signings made this year. A lot of players have been offered long term contracts and this is a positive sign. The management has been making a lot of changes and we believe that these changes are the right steps forward. We have immense faith in the owners and as a fan club will give them time to move in the right path. The results will find its way.
PR: Gary Hooper walks into the squad with an incredible wealth of experience accumulated from playing across the globe. He also has the added weight of being one of the most expensive players in the league. How does Manjappada expect him to cope with this new challenge, considering the size of the vacuum left by Ogbeche at the top of the lineup?
ARC: Considering Hooper’s illustrious career, he should definitely be able to fill in Ogbeche’s boots. He is a professional player who has played in the top leagues and we think he knows best on how to adapt to the league. We would love to see him score as many goals as he can.
PR: What all activities have Manjappada endorsed/supported/conducted to aid the battle against Covid-19?
ARC: We have been constantly partnering with various blood donation groups to actively donate blood and plasma for the ones in need. This has been our greatest off season initiative this year.
PR: How has the arrival of ISL redefined the football fan culture in India? What do you think Manjappada’s contribution has been to this aspect of the game in our nation?
ARC: We have always supported the National Team in every possible way and will continue to do so. ISL has introduced Indian Football to a lot of places where the game wasn’t spoken much about and this is a positive sign. Our job is to support the club and the country in every game.
PR: There has been some controversy regarding the departure of Sandesh Jhingan and his eventual signing with ATK-Mohan Bagan, with many fans demanding to revoke the permanent retirement of his iconic Jersey number “21”. How does Manjappada observe this issue? What kind of reception do you expect the fans would provide to Jhingan if and when he eventually faces off against Kerala Blasters in Kochi?
ARC: Jinghan is a club legend and it was the management’s decision to retire the jersey #21. We respect that decision. However, when he faces off against us, he will be an opponent from kick-off to the last whistle.
PR: Manjappada is famous for its passion towards the club and how it has stood by the club through its ups and downs. In these extraordinary situations created by a global pandemic, what level of success and performances are you guys expecting out of KBFC this time out?
ARC: Looking at the approach so far, we expect the club to do well this year. We would definitely love to see the club finish the top 4 and aim for the trophy. However, we should also be realistic. Over the last two seasons, we have improved our position in the table. The first objective would be to better last year’s result. We, as a responsible fan club, should give the coach and the management time to settle down. We understand that it is impossible to deliver quick results overnight. We want to see beautiful football and the fighting spirit in our players till the last whistle. Results are secondary.
As the excitement for a new season rises among football fans, there is renewed hope among Manjappada. A hope that this set of talented players, assembled with a sense previously unseen vision, will finally bring home the elusive ISL trophy and spark a glimmer of relief and joy in such a dark and tumultuous phase of the many Kerala Blasters fans.