Technically this should be a 2017 review as the Indian I-League only runs for four months at the start of the year but the first match of the season came at the start of January so you can presume pre-season must have started in the previous year.
Football in India paints a very interesting landscape at this current moment. On one hand, domestic football matches in the country are attracting fans in their thousands, to an unprecedented level even. On the other hand, there are two conflicting leagues running, with fans restricted to two short seasons at the start and the end of the year.
Firstly there is the I-League, which has been running since 2007 and is India’s top tier football competition. It is part of the Asian Football Confederation and therefore a part of FIFA as well. Teams from the I-League compete in the AFC’s continental tournaments.
But there is also the Indian Super League. The franchise based tournament began in 2014 and has run since. This is the glamour league of India. It has had the big names like Alessandro Del Piero, Robert Pires and even our very own Englishman abroad, David James. It also has the financial backing not seen in the I-League, with the franchises owned by former international cricketers, Bollywood stars and there is even investment from Atlético Madrid. However this league is not affiliated with the AFC or FIFA.
The ISL also attracts the spectators. The average attendance for the 2016 ISL was just over 21,000, with Kerala Blasters boasting an average of 49,343 and a highest attendance of nearly 55,000. Whereas the average for the I-League in 2017 was just 5,233 with a highest attendance for a single match being just over 29,000. There was even a match which only 300 fans attended.
With the ISL running from October to December, football fans in India are left without domestic action from the end of April to the start of October. This has seen India’s football governing body, the AIFF, look to combine the two leagues in the near future but this is set to be a huge headache for all involved. For starters, who gets the players? Some footballers in the country play in both leagues and the AIFF has been unclear on specifically how they plan to go about executing the combination.
Anyway back to the point, the I-League finished a few weeks back now so let’s look at the English involvement.
At the start of the season there were two English managers at the helm of clubs in the league. Firstly there was expat veteran Trevor Morgan, who has been coaching abroad for more than twenty years. The former Bournemouth and Bolton player got a taste for the overseas whilst playing in Hong Kong for Happy Valley and South China and has since gone on to manage in Australia, Singapore and India. He started the 2017 season in charge of East Bengal, returning to the club he managed for three years between 2010 and 2013. His second stint with the club ended during the 2017 season when he resigned with two games to go, leaving his side in third place.
Elsewhere there was also Dave Rogers, who was appointed as the manager of DSK Shivajians at the start of the season. The 41-year-old had a spell playing for Cambuur in Holland when was younger before going onto enjoy a successful career playing in Ireland. After working for Liverpool’s international academy for two years, Rogers was tasked with improving the fortunes of the club who finished bottom of the 2016 I-League. It is fair to say that he did that, steering his side clear from relegation, finishing 7th in the ten team league.
There was also one English player involved. Stats below include league appearances only.
John Johnson. 28. Defender. Bengaluru. Appearances: 12. Goals: 0
Middlesbrough-born defender John Johnson has been a fans favourite ever since he made the move to India in 2013. The former Northampton Town man has just completed his fourth season with Bengaluru and has been described as one of India’s best ever footballing imports.
When Johnson joined the club in 2013, after being convinced to sign by his former Northampton Town teammate Ashley Westwood, who was at the time the manager of Bengaluru, he became the first foreign player in the club’s history. Since then he has won two league titles, finished as runners-up in the AFC Cup (Asia’s equivalent to the Europa League) and also been named as the best defender in the I-League.
This season though was not Bengaluru’s finest and that coincided with Johnson making his fewest appearances in a single league season since he joined. The 28-year-old missed a third of his club’s league games as he appeared in just 12 matches. Despite that, he played for the full ninety in all of his league appearances, emphasising his importance to the club.
Johnson, who made a single Premier League appearance for his his hometown club Middlesbrough in 2008 during a 5-0 drubbing by Chelsea, also appeared five times this season in continental competition as Bengaluru failed to transfer their form in the AFC Cup to the AFC Champions League as they were knocked out in the preliminary rounds. However, they remain in the AFC Cup.
Overall, it was a disappointing season for Johnson and his teammates as they finished the season in 4th place, seven points off the champions Aizawl. However, the defender’s experience in India has been a largely successful one and with a year to go on his contract, the ex-Northampton Town man will be eager to regain the title for his club next season.