Gokulam Kerala may have only completed two seasons in I-League but they have quickly gained popularity among the football aficionados, not only in Kerala but also across the country.
Attendance-wise, they have struggled fill-up the EMS Stadium which does not have bucket seating. However, they have managed to knit together a good community of football lovers which is growing every year.
While the Malabarians were late by a few years to the Kerala football scene which strived for a football club playing in a professional Indian league, they have managed to achieve success in no time. They have added the 2019 Durand Cup and the Kerala Premier League trophies to their cabinet, became finalists in the KPL in the last three editions and reached semi-finals of the AFC-recognized Sheikh Jamal Club Cup held in Bangladesh.
Gokulam's women's team lifted the Indian Women's League trophy this year and their reserve team has won the Independence Day Cup and Bodousa Cup. The management has been very keen on taking part in tournaments and the club's representation has been commendable.
Despite their success in cup competitions, I-League title remains a distant dream for the Kozhikode-based club. They have not been able to mark that objective complete in their third try as well, after finishing in the bottom half of the table in their first two tries. Mohun Bagan won the 2019-20 season with four games to spare and a big lead over the rest of the teams. But that has now become part of the club's long-term vision.
"Every club playing in I-League can't win the title. It is a closely-fought competition. There are teams with a bigger budget and more experience. With every passing year, we are getting a more settled team. For the first two years, we didn't have players at all, now we have a settled outfit. Though we are sixth, there is only a point's difference between us and the second spot. We should have won against East Bengal, a goal was denied to us," club president VC Praveen, told Goal.
Gokulam Kerala's upcoming plans include setting up of academies in every district in Kerala. Kerala's representation in the national team, which was once something to boast about, is nearly non-existent now. Malabarians are ready to shoulder some of the responsibility and plan to find the hidden gems in the state.
Praveen explained, "We have managed to establish ourselves as one of the premier clubs in India. (KPL, Durand wins) is a recognition for us. Now, we are trying to spread across Kerala. We want academies in every district of Kerala. After one year, we need to have the best talents.
"By August (2020), we want to establish this. By April-May, we wanted to have summer cams. Now with the Coronavirus scare, don't know how far those camps can be a success."
The club management's be-all and end-all also hinted that the Malabarians are exploring the opportunity to play a few matches at the Manjeri Stadium in Malappuram next season. A shift of base was earlier in the club's plans but they have since grown accustomed to calling the EMS Stadium in Kozhikode 'home'.
"For now, it (home base) will be EMS Stadium, we have been here for three years. Manjeri Stadium is now fully floodlit. We are thinking about playing 2-3 matches in Malappuram, if possible.
The ongoing Coronavirus pandemic remains a huge concern for football clubs all over the world. India has seen more than 100 registered cases and following a government directive, all football competitions in the country, including the I-League, remain suspended till March 31.
This also has a financial implication on clubs. Praveen said, "As of now, nobody has been affected. But the stoppage of the league has affected our plans. Hopefully, by April, the season comes to an end. If it is dragged onto May, then it will be a big financial implication on us. Already, the cancellation of tickets for away matches, don't know how much damage it will be for us."
The All India Football Federation (AIFF) had initially decided to organize I-League matches behind closed doors. However, the government directive left them with no choice but to suspend the matches from March 15, which was a matchday at the EMS Stadium.
"We actually think the last game could have happened. Indian Arrows had reached Calicut, one day difference wouldn't have made a difference. Either it could have been suspended with immediate effect or Monday. It would have helped AIFF also, everyone would have finished 16 matches," Praveen opined.
As Gokulam Kerala continued to make strides in the right direction, there has also been a slight drop in the number of regular first-team starters who are Keralites. This season, Ubaid CK and Mohammad Irshad are the regulars (more than 10 starts). Jestin George has started nine games whereas Shibil Mohammed, Rahul KP and Salman Kalliyath have all made cameos.
Praveen made an important point regarding the same. "The thing is, we can bring them into the team. To get to play, they have to work. They (upcoming talents) all want to be in ISL but all teams can play only a certain number of players. Some are too young to play in ISL. They don't realize that and sign up for ISL teams and then sit in the gallery.
"After two years, they come back to I-League or end up playing in the second division. Not many 19-20 year-olds are playing in the ISL. They have to explore their chances before moving to ISL."
Gokulam Kerala have only started to dream. They want to win the I-League, play in Asia and develop talented players from their youth academy.