An intriguing final had pitted the Indian Women’s League’s best attack versus the best defence. Till the summit clash, Kryphsa had conceded just one goal while Gokulam Kerala topped the goalscoring charts in the league.
You could sense how badly Gokulam Kerala wanted the title. Not even a minute had passed by in Friday’s final clash, when Prameshwori Devi broke the deadlock for the Malabarians.
A statement was made early on, but the Manipur-based club staged a comeback with forward Ratanbala Devi netting the equaliser as late as the 73rd minute.
Sloppy passing and a drop in energy levels had seen Gokulam Kerala squander a 2-0 lead. The tension in their dugout was palpable in second-half.
But they regrouped in time to clinch the match, with their star forward Sabitra Bhandari scoring the winner, and lift the club’s first IWL trophy after three years.
“We never considered ourselves favourites and played Kryphsa with all our respect,” Gokulam Kerala coach Priya PV told Scroll.in after the final.
“But we were aware that our attack was the best form of defence. We deserved the third goal. We had good attackers and stuck to our style of play of possession-based, attacking football. Even despite conceding two we stuck with our style. I think that is why we deserved the third goal,” she added, describing how they got the winner in the end.
The final was a tightly-contested battle in midfield but nerves got the better of the Kryphsa FC defense, who were under the cosh from the first minute.
The winner, fittingly, came from Nepal international Bhandari, who took the league by storm and finished as the top scorer. This season, she netted in all her games with a total tally of 19 goals, including two hat-tricks.
Her partnership with former India player Kamala Devi was a match made in heaven for Gokulam Kerala. While Bhandari topped the goalscoring charts, Kamala Devi racked up the highest assists in the IWL and chipped in with seven goals despite playing a more withdrawn role.
“It was my dream to play with Bala Devi first and now Kamala,” Bhandari told Scroll.in.
“It was easy playing with Kamala since our movements were quite the same. She had that perfect understanding when to spot my run and supply through balls. We both used to look for each other in the box. The competition this year was tough but my teammates helped me score the goals,” she added.
Kickstart FC and Sethu FC, champions of the third edition, were among the clubs chasing Bhandari’s signature but when Gokulam Kerala came calling at the start of the season, she knew where she was going.
Bhandari was among the several players carefully handpicked by coach Priya PV before the start of the season. She also scouted players who could provide experience – an element which was missing in her squad last season – from the SAFF Championships, university tournaments, and state leagues.
“I started planning our squad from last year itself after watching a lot of matches. Last year our squad had less senior players, so we missed out on the title but this year I selected players who had experience. We scouted very carefully for each position,” Priya revealed.
The planning showed as, Gokulam Kerala steamrolled teams in most games. Defensively, they let in just four goals, which joint-best alongside Kryphsa FC after the final. From the assurance of goalkeeper Aditi Chauhan between the sticks to the trio of Michel Castanha, Grace Haunhar and Kashmina providing a perfect blend of steel and creativity in midfield, they had the quality which very few sides could match.
In the final though, Kryphsa FC had the edge when it came to experience. Coached by India assistant Chaoba Devi, they had players who were with the club for years and as many as eight India international players in their starting eleven. Gokulam Kerala, on the other hand, had a bunch of new faces who took time to gel together.
“I was very nervous since this was my first experience as captain. I am still nervous,” captain Castanha told Scroll.in. “Thankfully the senior players supported me and made me understand my role better. So the pressure eased off.”
She added, “It was difficult at first. There were communication issues. It took time but we combined really well as the players understood each other. Sabitra [Bhandari] and Kamala [Devi] shone but because of our teamwork we could dominate all the matches.”
Repaying the faith
In the last two editions, Gokulam Kerala has been among the most consistent sides in the IWL. After falling at the semi-final hurdle against Manipur Police last season, Friday’s title victory was all about redemption for the only club among the Indian Super League and the I-League to field a women’s side.
“I’m really glad we could repay them with a trophy since we could not win in the past two-three years,” said goalkeeper Chauhan. “This feels special. It was important to give back to the club since its the first I-League club that has taken a chance and invested in women’s football,” said the India custodian.
This is the second trophy for the club this season after the men bagged the 2019 Durand Cup title. Now with the women winning a national league title, Gokulam Kerala’s trophy cabinet is shining brighter.