From giant-killers to I-League champions: Gokulam Kerala’s steady climb in Indian football

Gokulam Kerala defeated TRAU FC in the final game of the season to bring the I-League trophy to Kerala for the first time…

When Gokulam Kerala announced their entry into the I-League in 2017, the then head coach Bino George, in one of his first conversations with Goal, had confidently stated that the club’s target is to represent the country in an AFC competition. Four years later, they have done it.

Kerala had been looking for a league trophy for years. The state has produced numerous wonderful football talents over the years, including the likes of IM Vijayan and Jo Paul Ancheri. But even their famous Kerala Police team of the 90s fell short of winning the ultimate prize at the end of campaigns.

March 27, 2021, was an important day for Kerala football. Gokulam Kerala were involved in a three-team race for the league title which dragged onto the final day of the season with the teams all tied on 26 points. The Malabarians and TRAU headed into their final game of the campaign knowing that the winner of that fixture will lift the trophy regardless of Churchill Brothers’ result in their game due to the superior goal difference.

Gokulam Kerala scripted history on that day. They smashed TRAU FC 4-1 in lift the 2020-21 I-League trophy and became the first football club from the state to achieve the feat. With the win, the Malabarians have also secured an automatic slot in the group stages of the AFC Cup 2022.

Bidyasagar Singh had handed TRAU the lead in the 24th minute of the match but the Malabarians came back strongly in the second half. They scored three goals between the 70th and 77th minutes on their way to a historic result. Sharif Mukhammad (70′), Emil Benny (74′) and Denny Antwi (77′) and Mohammed Rashid (90+8′) were on target for the Kozhikode-based club and the performance was a summary of what they had been doing well throughout the campaign.

Gokulam Kerala

Gokulam had begun their journey in the 2017-18 I-League season and have shown steady progress over the course of four seasons to be crowned champions. Despite finishing seventh in their debut campaign, the team earned the tag of ‘Giant Killers’ with their remarkable displays against the Kolkata giants East Bengal and Mohun Bagan under the leadership of head coach Bino George. The team had plenty of Malayali players in the first-team squad, including midfielder Arjun Jayaraj who impressed football aficionados in the country.

The 2018-19 season was a bumpy ride for the club. Out-of-form Indian players and unimpressive foreigners combined with defensive errors pushed the club to the ninth spot in the standings with just three wins to their name in 20 matches. But that season was a learning curve for everyone working behind the scenes at the club.

A squad revamp and minor structural changes followed, with Bino George returning to the role of technical director. Spanish coach Fernando Varela returned to take up the position as head coach after having left the post due to personal reasons before the start of the previous season. What followed was a season full of promise.

COVID-19 and the lockdown in the country ended what was an exciting contest in the 2019-20 season of I-League. The Malabarians finished sixth on the table but only a point separated them from runners-up East Bengal with only a few more rounds left. But it wasn’t meant to be. They had to wait for their turn.

Even amid the I-League clubs’ protest against the decision to classify Indian Super League (ISL) as India’s top division, Gokulam Kerala were a club that actively looked out for opportunities to ensure success on the field. Despite financial limitations, they even ventured into the territory of women’s football and found success there, by winning the 2020 Indian Women’s League. The men’s team won the 2019 Durand Cup and the 2017-18 Kerala Premier League.

The club delivered when it matters in the pandemic-hit 2020-21 season which was played behind closed doors in West Bengal. They brought in a young and promising Italian coach and recruited cleverly. The team had promising local talents like Emil Benny and also impressive foreign contributions from the likes of Denny Antwi (topscorer with 11 goals) and Philip Adjah (5 goals).

They were not direct contenders for the title with Churchill Brothers looking strong and being tagged as the favourites to go all the way. But then the race opened up in the second stage of the league and a three-way contest ensued. Vincenzo Annese’s team picked up four wins in their last five matches, which included big wins against competitors Churchill and TRAU, to emphatically cross the finish line.

The coaching staff and the management deserve a lot of credit for never giving up. They kept it, did what they can to make strengthen the team and find the right combinations – the club that once signed 32-year-old Odafa Okolie who was out-of-shape in a January transfer window out of desperation – have come a long way.