Tracking football news soon became a daily practice. Stories were shared using an automated feed early on. And now, his handle is arguably the most popular account in Indian football circles.
In February, the popular handle @fni celebrated its 11-year anniversary on Twitter. It boasts a following of over 38,000 on the micro-blogging site and has become popular among football clubs, players, coaches, journalists, fan groups, apart from just avid followers of the game. FNI’s Facebook page, launched in July 2012, has nearly 66,000 likes.
“It has been an exciting journey and one to remember but never did I expect the following to grow this much,” Unnikrishnan told Scroll.in. “I still get taunted by my spouse saying that FNI is my first wife.”
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Over the years, Unnikrishnan has undergone a serious transformation. From being a professional in the IT industry with over 10 years of experience, his love for the beautiful game has now brought him back to his hometown of Kozhikode, where he handles operations at I-League club Gokulam Kerala.
Unnikrishnan began following football at the age of seven. Although none of his family members were fanatics of the game or any other sport, his interest peaked when Kerala Police FC came to prominence in the country. The state team, too, was on the rise in the Santosh Trophy (the interstate championship) where they reached seven consecutive finals between 1987-’93.
Since there was hardly any access to European football or other leagues around that time, he would keep himself abreast with the latest happenings in football by tracking local newspapers.
“The Kerala police team was doing great when I was around 12 years old,” he recalled.
“[IM] Vijayan, [CV] Pappachan, goalkeeper KT Chacko soon became my idols and my interest for football was kindled by watching them. As we didn’t have a television or a cable connection at home, whatever I followed was restricted to Kerala football and the national leagues.”
He didn’t aspire to take up football as a career although he played for his school and college team. Soon, the time arrived when he had to switch his focus towards academics.
The launch of FNI
During the early 2000s, Unnikrishnan moved to Tiruchirapalli to pursue his undergraduate degree in engineering and that was when his interest in the game took a hit. Coupled with his focus on academics and the lack of access to Malayalam newspapers in Tamil Nadu, there was very little he could do to follow the game.
“I left following football seriously during my engineering course,” said the Arsenal FC fan. “Reading newspapers became next to nil since there weren’t enough Malayalam publications which were accessible.”
Once he moved to Bangalore a few years later for his IT job, he began religiously following the sport again. There, he would utilize breaks during work hours to read up online news regularly, not just restricted to football or sports.
He later discovered an RSS reader, which made it easier for him to regularly track latest news. With his knowledge of coding, Unnikrishnan invented a feature where he could share news on Twitter through his RSS reader, and that was when he created the page with the name FNI. He even had plans to launch pages for other sports but due to time constraints, that never materialised.
“I wanted to make a page for volleyball and badminton too, but I never got the time,” he said. “Then I got married, so it was definitely not possible (laughs). But my primary interest was always football and coming across the RSS reader was like a eureka moment.”
The first post that he had published on Twitter was an I-League match report between Mumbai FC and Sporting Clube de Goa in 2009. Although Unnikrishnan hardly had a handful of followers initially, the numbers never really mattered to him as reading news and pushing it out on his Twitter feed had become a daily routine, even if it was mundane.
This trend continued for a couple of years before he decided to manually post news from his handle instead of the automated RSS reader. He started using more images in his content. There was effort put into finding news; not just major sources but also from regional and local news outlets.
‘There was not much interest [at the start] but I thought I’ll keep doing what I did since I read news. But when I started manually publishing news other than using an automated form, the difference was quite evident. I started gathering more followers. I managed to get a lot of friends and followers who kind of shared the same opinion. I also coaxed people into using hashtags. So it would be easy for others to join the conversations on Indian football.
“I saw pictorial content getting a lot more traction than usual articles. So I took a bit of an effort to make my tweets colourful. I am a bad graphic designer still but then, I did what I could,” he added.
The 39-year-old said his account witnessed a massive surge during the ISL era with the buzz surrounding transfer rumours and news about marquee players coming to Indian shores. During the inaugural season, he even began live tweeting scores for matches, but resorted to sharing news as he felt the volume of tweets led to loss of followers.
“When the ISL happened, there was a massive interest and many others joined the ecosystem,” he said. “ISL brought a lot of attention to the game and many mainstream journalists who covered sports also started doing stories on the league. There was an upward swing. There were a lot of new handles that came up. It became vibrant.”
Reunited with the game
Life has now come full circle for Unnikrishnan after quitting his IT job and moving back to Kerala. As Operations Head at the football club, his duties range from ensuring that Gokulam Kerala’s home ground – the EMS stadium – is fully ready ahead of a match and overseeing accommodation for the players, apart from plenty of other responsibilities.
There were many sacrifices involved at first, such as moving away from his family in Bangalore and giving up his comfortable job to fulfill his passion for a new venture filled with uncertainties and where earnings may be modest.
Unnikrishnan got to experience the true joy sports can bring when his team lifted the Durand Cup in 2019, one of India’s most prestigious club competitions. The title returned to Kerala after a long gap of 22 years.
“I was lucky enough to fly to Kolkata for the final which was held at the Salt Lake Stadium,” he said.
“It was always my dream to be at the maidan for a football game but it never happened for some reason or the other. To watch Gokulam Kerala in the final there was a thriller. The cherry on the cake was watching them winning the trophy. It was arguably one of the best days of my life. I won’t ever forget it.”
Although ardent fans of FNI can notice the reduced activity from the handle since Unnikrishnan took up his role with GKFC, he continues to make time for his first love even now. Every day, be it during his free time or late at night once he’s done from all other work, he continues to share news stories about Indian football. Amid all of life’s priorities and commitments, it has now become an inseparable part of his life.