Having lost twelve of the first nineteen games of the season, ONGC looked dead and buried, and the favourites to go down into I-League division II. After several analysts and pundits had branded their relegation battle as ‘Mission Impossible’, heroics from Kailash Patil, newly signed Japanese - Katsumi Yusa – and Badmus Babatunde have seen them steady the ship and move to the 11th spot in the I-League.
ONGC utilized the season’s first transfer market to its full effect, signing eight players including N.D Opara and Kailash Patil from local rivals Air India. Their business seemed good enough for a mid-table finish; some people even called them ‘the underdogs’. The season that promised so much for the Mumbai based club didn’t start as expected – both on and off the field matters. Firstly, their home ground in Mumbai – the Cooperage Stadium - was closed for the purpose of revamping, renovation and construction. Thus, they were forced to shift their playing venue from Mumbai. ONGC, eventually, agreed to play their home matches at the Shri Chattrapati Sahu Stadium in Kolhapur. Secondly, an inspirational coach in Sujit Chakravarty, the man who had got them promoted, opted to leave the club to coach an Indian Footballing giant, Mohun Bagan. He was soon replaced by Subrata Bhattacharya. Thirdly, ONGC were made to taste dust when a series of late goals in several games, denied them crucial points and had them fighting for relegation.
In their first game in the I-League, they produced a solid performance and got stuck in to East Bengal at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata, only to lose by virtue of a late goal by Tolgay. In the next game, another late goal haunted them; this time to the advantage of AIFF XI when
But it was not only late goals that have led to ONGC struggling, some of their performances have been extremely disappointing and not in par with the other I-League teams. Their displays against Dempo, Chirag United, Mumbai FC and Mohun Bagan in the first half of the season were unacceptable and had them placed at the foot of the I-League table with only a win out of 13.
As the second half of the season got under way, ONGC did a Wolves – who had beaten a Manchester United side which was unbeaten in the English Premiership season, 2-1 at the Mollinuex - against East Bengal, shocking the unbeaten league leaders 1-0 in Kolhapur to notch up their second win of the season. Many had predicted this very game to be the turning point of ONGC’s season but it never proved to be. In spite of signing the Japanese - Katsumi Yusa - in the second transfer window, they were soon thumped by Salgaocar 5-0 in Goa and then, beaten by Dempo, Air India and Pune FC leaving them with 12 losses in 19 games and with a mountain to climb.
It seemed almost impossible for coach Bhattacharya to lift his ONGC outfit but somehow, he managed to do that with excellence.
It looked game over after 50 minutes in Margao, Goa when Churchill brothers, expectedly, took a two goal lead over ONGC. A brilliant run down the flank by Yusa allowed the Japanese to play in Babatunde, who found the net to pull one back. Soon, the former Air India man, ND Opara equalized to give ONGC hope. ONGC FC again had to claw their way back into the game after Odafa had restored Churchill’s lead. The 3-3 result against Churchill Brothers and a fighting spirit – that Bhattacharya had been speaking so much of - was vindicated by ONGC.
Pundits and fans, who had written off ONGC before the game, couldn’t even have thought in their sleep if this could be the turning point of their season. With six games left to play and fellow relegation battling Air India up next, Bhattacharya knew that this was a six pointer. He started with Katsumi Yusa, playing him for the first time behind Kailash Patil, the local Kolhapur boy. His trust on Yusa and Patil proved dividends. Yusa, first curled a 21-yard freekick from outside the box; a freekick that even David Beckham would have enjoyed. With news spreading around Kolhapur, thick and fast, of the former Air India man, Patil starting the game, the crowd soon started rushing in. And, weren’t they treated by Patil? They sure were, the local boy scored a brace to leave the Kolhapurians jubilant and to take ONGC within points of Air India, thereby, kick-starting their safety push. ONGC eventually winning the game 4-0.
A week on, another 6-pointer at Kolhapur, another start for Patil and guess what, the same result. This time, Kailash Patil didn’t shine but Jatin Bisht had a wonderful game, the captain lead from the front; man who made the difference - Yusa. On endless occasions, he charged into the box and out-did several JCT players with his quick feet and trickery. Although Babatunde received the man of the match for his two goals but the man who got all the praise was the 22-year old, Katsumi Yusa. The win gave the table footers another victory under their belt as they chased survival in the I-League. Babatunde scored the winner for ONGC in the 93rd minute. For once, even ONGC FC was experiencing scoring goals late on.
After beating East Bengal earlier in the season, Bhattacharya hoped for the same against Mohun Bagan; a task too difficult to carry out at the Salt Lake?
As it’s said, what goes round comes around. How many times have late goals denied ONGC deserved points, this was their turn.
Mohun Bagan scored early and lead until the 78th minute. With ever-influential Yusa going off for Kailash Patil, the Mohun Bagan fans breathed a sigh of relief, only for them to be shocked. Kailash Patil came off the bench to become the super-sub to score two vital goals that gave ONGC three priceless points and took them out of the final three, for the first time this season. The resurgent ONGC spirit was vindicated again.
Ever since the time, most people labelled ONGC’s relegation battle as “Mission Impossible”, it has been anything but; it has been a great escape. ONGC FC have since come out fighting, and fighting they are to play in the biggest football league in India for one more year, at least.
Recently, the pundits have called the ONGC FC form as temporary and have been saying the famous footballing prologue that reads, “When would the bubble burst?”
When would it burst, we will have to wait and see, but somehow, if ONGC FC are able to survive, it will, for sure, be one of the greatest relegation battles put forward by any football club on Indian soil.
No matter, how much people blame Subrata Bhattacharya for ONGC’s earlier results, the long haired Indian, coaching the Mumbai based club has certainly conjured magic, developed team spirit, made the team play out of their skins and shaped the fortunes of ONGC to the surprise of most watching the Indian Football League. Dead and buried, not quite! they are still fighting, the Men in maroon and White, ONGC FC.