Kaloor: Once the favourite destination for opponents, now a hell for rivals
A new coach and a revamped team successfully transformed Kochi from opponents' favoured destination into a fortress for Blasters.
In an era long past, commentators eagerly opened their discourse with, 'We are back in Kochi for another Kerala Blasters home game. They haven't tasted victory at home for over 200 days. Can they break the streak today?'
When queried about their preferred stadium, opposing players consistently singled out Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Kaloor, both before and after Steve Coppel's tenure.
Steve Coppel adeptly leveraged Kochi's massive crowd advantage. However, post-Coppel, Kochi transitioned into a favoured destination for the visiting teams. While teams traditionally celebrated wins with Viking claps, Kerala Blasters began applauding draws with their Viking claps due to a scarcity of celebratory moments in their tusker home.
Five years later, a new coach and a revamped team successfully transformed Kochi from a favoured destination for opponents into a fortress for the Blasters. It is the place where they became formidable. Ivan Vukomanovic assumed control in 2021, initially facing scepticism due to his career breaks.
Nevertheless, he defied expectations, leading the team to the finals amid a Covid-19 season, ultimately losing to Hyderabad FC in penalties. Vukomanovic's success earned him a contract extension until 2025.
In the 2022-23 season opener, Vukomanovic initiated a winning streak at Kaloor, accumulating 21 points out of a possible 30 at home, marking a significant improvement over previous seasons. The transformation of the tuskers' home into an intimidating fortress and the fans' evolution are intriguing aspects of this journey.
Before Vukomanovic, Kerala Blasters suffered from a broken mentality, especially when they trailed. Vukomanovic swiftly addressed and rectified that issue, emphasising that playing for Kerala Blasters should be a source of joy, not pressure. The team's performance reflected this change, with a commanding win over East Bengal and a remarkable recovery from initial setbacks.
Despite having a huge crowd to back them, once the Blasters were back from the bio-bubble to the normal season, the most important question was - will this team be able to withstand the crowd pressure?
Ivan Vukomanovic had answers. 'When you're playing for Kerala Blasters, you should be delighted that you get to play in front of this huge fanbase. It should only bring pleasure, not pressure.' And that is exactly what his team did for him. The first season back in Kochi started with a commanding win over East Bengal with Adrian Luna stealing the show, but the Blasters suffered heavy defeats against Mumbai City FC and ATK Mohun Bagan in subsequent games.
After that, they went on to win all six games and lost only to Hyderabad FC at home. The 2023-24 ISL season started with another vibrant curtain raiser at Kochi with Kerala Blasters taking on Bengaluru FC. They have completed five home games already and won four of them and a draw against NorthEast United FC.
'When you face teams, you must match the duels - the fight, the character, the mentality, and fighting spirit - to get the points if you don't get those things, and these things are very important in football,' Vukomanovic, who made Kochi a fortress, opined.
Evolution of the Fans
Manjappada has always been a prominent presence at Kaloor's Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. Despite the huge numbers, the fans of Kerala Blasters failed to create a hostile environment for the fans in the initial seasons. The crowd was always an 'ideal football appreciating crowd', the ones who appreciate opponents and go silent when the opponents take the lead, except a section.
From the season when Eelco Schattorie took charge, the mentality of fans started showing changes. Notably, that's the first time Kerala Blasters defeated Bengaluru FC at home.
With Ivan Vukomanovic taking charge, the fan's mentality has completely changed. Although the commentators say that the crowd went silent after, for example, in the final game against Odisha FC after Diego Mauricio scored, the reality is far from that. The crowd goes louder when the team is down to a goal or two, which is proven crucial in the comeback spirit of the team.