Back in 2017, when Sree Gokulam Group entered the I-League scene via a corporate bid, not many would have known much about Kerala's second 'big' football club. But in just three years, Gokulam Kerala have not only carved a niche for themselves in India's footballing landscape, they have also proved themselves every time they had their backs to the wall.
The overall vision
The team didn't have the best of starts though. The Malabarians finished 7th in their debut season, went further down to 9th the season after, before making significant improvement and finishing 5th in 2019-20, albeit in a curtailed season. However, what they always seemed to be able to do is unearth talented local players, like 20-year-old Emil Benny this season, and integrate them into their first-team.
Their foreign recruits have always been solid as well, which has enabled them to play a consistent brand of attacking football. The likes of Marcus Joseph, Henry Kisekka and more recently, Denny Antwi and Philip Adjah, have all turned out to be very shrewd buys. The best thing about them is that they fit into the style that coaches like Bino George and Vincenzo Annese envisioned during their respective seasons in charge and have improved the young Indian players around them.
Moreover, the involvement that the club has in terms of helping their players acclimatize to the culture within the club is also praiseworthy. Over the years, the management and ownership have ensured that their players are taken care of, both financially as well as in terms of the facilities available to them. As a result, they now have a well-oiled scouting and recruitment system in place that is yielding positive results on the pitch. Not to forget their women's team, which is the current defending champion of the Indian Women's League (IWL) and are widely regarded as the best women's team in the country.
The 'Giant-Killer' tag and rivalry with Kolkata clubs
In the last four or so years, Gokulam Kerala have been synonymous with persistence and perseverance as far as big games are concerned, both in the I-League and domestic cup competitions. They have beaten Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, Punjab FC and Chennai City in the past two seasons and even went on to win the 2019 Durand Cup in an emphatic manner. The Malabarians scored 11 goals in the group stages of the cup and defeated the likes of Chennaiyin FC, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan on their way to lifting the trophy. Their dominance within Kerala is quite notable, with the side having won the Kerala Premier League twice in the last four years.
As a result of their apparent invincibility against the two Kolkata big clubs, the club has developed a healthy rivalry against their supporters. The Twitter banter aside, this is significant also because Kerala and West Bengal have always been the two biggest footballing states in the country and the emergence of a second club from the state after Kerala Blasters can only be good in that context.
Their I-League 2020-21 triumph is sure to fast-track that and the fact that they will be playing in the next season of the AFC Cup is something else to look forward to. But be that as it may, one would feel like an entry into the Indian Super League (ISL) would be the next natural progression for a club that in such a short period of time has managed to capture the imagination of the entire country. Whether that will happen anytime soon is anyone's guess.