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Rise like a phoenix

Despite the loss of key players, the HASC coach is hopeful of success in the I-league

However small a community it may be limited to, the excitement at the HASC's (Hindustan Aeronautics Sports Club) opening home game of the preceding I-League season was considerable. An ardent, large crowd turned up at what was Bangalore's first top-flight fixture in over three years, buoyed by the bright beginning their club's campaign had seen. HASC had taken points off of more fancied opponents on their own patches, rising to seventh in the league table after six games. Coach R. Thyagaraj, though, was wary of overstating his team's initial successes. In the days leading up to that tie against Salgaocar at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium, he sought to reiterate that the primary objective was avoiding relegation. “Our only target is to stay in the I League this season,” he said then. “We have missed key players and suffered injuries too. We don't have enough bench strength. So our first aim is to stay up.” He needn't have bothered spelling it out. HASC lost that game 1-0, and in the weeks and months that followed, plummeted to the bottom.

With the club needing a win away to stalwart Dempo on the final day of the season (having gone nine games without victory), Bangalore's tryst with the I-League looked over for another year at least. From 2-1 down at the interval, few would have given HASC a chance. “If you lose today, no one will look at you again,” manager K. Murali says he told the players in his half-time team talk that day. “No one will select you; no one will make you an offer. HAL will continue functioning irrespective of the result, but if you win, it will be good for each of you.” In the second period, Xavier Vijaykumar struck a brace before a Dempo own goal helped the side win 4-2, completing the most astonishing of escapes.

“If we had been relegated, football fans in Bangalore would have suffered tremendously,” Murali says. “We were determined for the I-League to stay in the city. If HAL had sunk to the second division, nobody will have come to watch. Goa and Calcutta have six or seven teams in the I-League. We have only one.”

If there had been quiet anticipation ahead of last season, the outlook has been fairly grim this time, not the least of reasons for which has been the exodus of major players in the summer.

Vijaykumar, the club's hero in that final game, and easily its best player through the season, has left for Churchill Brothers with former captain J. Murali heading to Mohun Bagan. Nepali left-back Rohit Chand has also departed, while a raft of young players has been signed up in their stead.

“Xavi and Murali will be missed,” the manager concedes. “They were seniors; they have done great things for us. They're the reason why the club is standing where it is today. But we have a good squad even now.”

Nineteen-year-old Deepak Prakash (Mumbai FC), Chandandeep Singh (JCT), Sudeesh Muttath (Vasco), and Serbian striker Aleksandar Sujdovic (Dhanmondi Club, Bangladesh) have all been brought in (among other players) but if last month's Federation Cup performance is to be treated as any portent, a long struggle lies ahead.

HASC lost all three group matches at the tournament, managing only one goal, but Murali feels the side will need time to bond on the pitch.

“I'm not satisfied with the Federation Cup but then the team was not jelling,” he says. “I was not happy with the refereeing and we made some mistakes too. Things will become clearer after one or two matches.”

HASC's first fixture on the 2011-12 I-League calendar features Chirag United Kerala this Saturday at the Bangalore Football Stadium, and the club will take comfort in the venue .

Last season, prolonged work on the artificial turf there forced home games to be moved to the Sree Kanteerava Stadium, where an inhospitable surface made life hard (. As it was, the side managed to play only once on the freshly-laid pitch at the Football Stadium – its penultimate match of the season, against powerhouse East Bengal.

Almost as if to vindicate the manager's season-long condemnation of the Kanteerava sward as a cause in the downslide, HASC managed a draw few had thought possible earlier, grabbing a point vital to its hopes of survival.

“We play well on good grounds,” Murali feels now, as he stated then. The airmen could very well benefit from the turf this time and wage an improved campaign, but they had been trailing against East Bengal that afternoon too, preferred venue or not.

Only a delightful goal eight minutes from time, curled in at the far post from the right-hand side of the area, yielded the critical point.

The scorer, of course, was the attacking midfielder Xavier Vijaykumar.

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2020 1:06:32 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/rise-like-a-phoenix/article2551873.ece

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