East Bengal’s agonising journey in the I-League over the years

Goal takes a look at East Bengal’s agony over the years in the country’s premier league competition…

East Bengal fans have waited far too long for the coveted I-League title. It has been more than 15 seasons since the Red and Golds last won the silverware.

Unfortunately, their wait is likely to be extended for another year. The Red and Golds are currently struggling in the sixth position in the league table and are 14 points behind leaders and rivals Mohun Bagan.

As East Bengal's agony in the league continues, we look back at the club’s journey in the National Football League (NFL)/I-League since they last won the competition.

2004-05 (3rd out of 12 teams)

East Bengal saw a mass exodus of star players from the ASEAN Cup and NFL-winning side from the previous season. Players like Suley Musah, Mahesh Gawli, Shanmugham Venkatesh and Cristiano Junior parted ways with the club, leaving them in disarray. The inability to hold on to their star players affected their performance as the Red and Golds failed to make a hat-trick of league titles.

2005-06 (2nd out of 10 teams)

Subhash Bhowmick left the club midway into the season due to a corruption scandal that left the club in tatters. With new Belgian coach Philippe de Ridder joining the club just before the NFL, it was always going to be a difficult task for him. Also the Belgian coach had a fallout with star striker Mike Okoro and the Nigerian forward was benched for the most of the season. While upcoming Indian striker Gouranga Dutta did a commendable job alongside Bhaichung Bhutia, it wasn’t good enough to match the might of Mahindra United.

2006-07 (5th out of 10 teams)

Philippe de Ridder was shown the door after he failed to win any silverware. Bhaichung Bhutia, who shared a special bond with the Belgian coach did not agree with the club’s decision and after his plea to retain the coach was rejected, he too decided to leave the club. Once again with star players like Bhaichung Bhutia and Mike Okoro leaving the club, new coach Carlos Roberto Perreira failed to win the league. The team remained inconsistent throughout the season and faltered in the final few matches, ending 10 points adrift of the winners Dempo SC.

2007-08 (6th out of 10 teams)

This was an eventful season for East Bengal which started with the appointment of Subrata Bhattacharya, a Mohun Bagan legend, as the club’s new head coach. Bhattacharya turned quite a few heads at the club and many were apprehensive about the decision in the first place. The Bagan legend guided the club to Federation Cup triumph but faltered in the I-League. After a successful campaign in the Federation Cup, Bhattacharya slowly started to lose the dressing room with some of the senior Indian players turning against the coach. Also, the signing of high-profile South African World Cupper MacDonald Mukansi proved to be a complete disaster as the striker failed to find his feet. East Bengal struggled throughout the season and somehow managed to stave off relegation. Interestingly, East Bengal had three different coaches at the helm in that season.

2008-09 (6th out of 12 teams)

Manoranjan Bhattacharya, a former NFL winning coach at East Bengal, was handed the reins at the start of the season. Yusif Yakubu was brought in along with then upcoming Indian star Sunil Chhetri upfront. But poor foreign recruits was a big reason why the Kolkata club once again failed in the I-League. They had a poor start to their campaign and were struggling to save relegation midway into the season. Manoranjan was shown the door and Subhash Bhowmick was brought back to save the club. The club made a turn around under Bhowmick. a they defeated arch-rivals, Mohun Bagan, first time in seven games and ended the season with a mid-table finish.

2009-10 (9th out of 14 teams)

Bhowmick handpicked the foreign players in this season in a bid to change the club’s fortune. Unfortunately, things did not go as planned. The foreign recruits - Czech Republic’s Jan Berger, Argentine striker Sebastian Monesterolo and Australian midfielder Srecho Mitrovic - failed miserably. After finishing third in the CFL, the Red and Golds got off to their worst possible start in the I-League. They lost three out of the first four matches including a shameful 5-3 loss in the Kolkata derby. Bhowmick was sacked after the horrific start and in came Philippe de Ridder again.

Even though the Belgian guided East Bengal to a Federation Cup triumph, he could never recover the team from the initial setback in the I-League.

2010-13 (The Trevor James Morgan era) (2nd, 2nd and 3rd respectively out of 14 teams)

This was easily the most successful period in the club’s history since the ASEAN Cup-winning campaign. Under Trevor Morgan, the club won trophies in three seasons but unfortunately failed to bag the I-League title. Two major reasons why Morgan failed to bring home the coveted trophy were the failure to sign a fourth foreigner in time and that they choked in the final lap of the league.

In none of the three seasons, the club had all four foreigners signed before the I-League campaign. From Alexandro Da Silva to Edmilson to Andrew Barisic, all joined the club when 50 per cent of the league was already over. It did not help that the club suffered dips in form of the club in the final stages of the league campaigns.

2013-14 (2nd out of 13 teams)

Trevor James Morgan left the club unable to win the I-League title and East Bengal replaced him with Brazilian coach Marcos Falopa. He took East Bengal to the semifinals of the AFC Cup but a poor start in the I-League saw the Brazilian leave the club. Five-times I-League winning Dempo coach Armando Colaco had replaced Falopa at the helm. It didn't help the club change their fortunes around and they lost the title to Bengaluru FC in the end.

A major reason why Falopa or Colaco failed was that the squad could not adjust to their philosophies. Also, Trevor Morgan had become a favourite among the players and large section of senior players had allegedly created a hostile dressing room atmosphere post Morgan's exit.

.2014-15 (4th out of 11 teams)

The same trend of not recruiting the fourth foreigner before the I-League continued. While the club had signed Ranti Martins, Dudu Omagbemi and Kiwi World Cupper Leo Bertos at the beginning of the season, Australian defender Milan Susak came midway. Susak failed to adjust himself to the conditions while Bertos failed miserably in the Red and Golds jersey. Hence Armando Colaco and later Eelco Schattorie failed to win the I-League.

The club just could not perform when the league entered the decisive phase.

2015-16 (3rd out of 9 teams)

East Bengal brought in local coach Biswajit Bhattacharya at the helm this season. After a gap of six years, a Bengali coach was appointed as the head coach of the club. Bhattacharya won the CFL which had by then become a norm for the club. South Korean winger Do Dong Hyun became a superstar overnight after his heroics in the Kolkata derby. But injuries meant he could not perform in the I-League. The Indian contingent also put in average performances, apart from Mehtab Hossain. Also, once again, the fourth foreigner Bernard Mendy was signed only in the January window, and he arrived unfit.

2016-17 (3rd out of 10 teams)

Trevor Morgan returned to take up the mantle at the club. The fan favourite was brought back on public demand. The Red and Golds went on to sign some of the top Indian footballers and had without a doubt the best squad in the league. They started their I-League campaign on a high and looked set to end their title drought. But, as usual, they choked under pressure in the final few matches.

Also, the team, even though filled with star players, was not selected by Trevor Morgan. The Britisher was known to prefer the 4-4-2 diamond formation and East Bengal had seven traditional wingers in their squad. It was just another factor that did not help their cause.

2017-18 (4th out of 10 teams)

Khalid Jamil was brought in by the club this season after his heroics with Aizawl FC. But Jamil was never given the best of the arsenal. Poor foreign recruits hampered the team's performances, with the likes of Carlyle Mitchell (injury), Charles, Willis Plaza and Bazie Armand all released during the season. Irrespective of that, East Bengal were in the title race until their penultimate game. But managing just a draw against Shillong Lajong after taking the lead turned out to be their downfall.

2018-19 (2nd out of 11 teams)

With new investors on board and new high profile coach in Alejandro Menendez Garcia at the helm, the Red and Golds’ hopes were renewed. After a rocky start to their campaign, East Bengal came back strongly and fought for the title till the very last match. Unfortunately, the Spanish coach couldn’t change their fortunes as they missed out on winning the league by just a point. The three consecutive defeats at the very beginning and their twin defeats against eventual champions Chennai City cost them the title.

Also, East Bengal could not complete their quota of foreign players before the season as they were handed a transfer ban. When they finally managed to sign all the foreign players, Mexican striker Enrique Esqueda got injured. The Red and Golds could avail the services of all six foreigners in the final eight matches of the season.