The 2015 edition of the Hero I-League was one of the most entertaining season in the history of the event. It took all 20 match days to determine the champions as well as the relegated teams. However, as they say, all good things must come to an end. So with the completion of the I-League 2015, Sports Rediscovered taking a look at what transpired this season.
Transition from ISL 2014 to I-League 2015
The transition from the star-studded Hero ISL to the I-League had not been particularly easy. While many have started to prefer the ISL simply due to its marketing gimmicks and stars on show, the I-League has produced some of the best Indian players. It is, however, important to note that a lot of players that we saw in the ISL made their names first in the I-League.
This season, some of them chose to remain at their parent ISL clubs and be loaned back into the I-League. Sandesh Jhingan, Jeje Lalpheklua and Gouramangi Singh were among the players loaned back. Former India international Densill Franco and a few others withdrew from I-League 2015 due to injury.
An entire host of transfers took place in the summer. Bengaluru FC were perhaps the most active in the off season. Apart from their pre-season tour of China, the Blues made a few key signings. Josh Walker and Eugeneson Lyngdoh were added to the squad.
Sony Norde, Josimar and Ranti Martins were the others who made the move to Mohun Bagan, Mumbai FC and East Bengal respectively. Sandesh Jhingan, meanwhile, completed a loan move to Sporting Clube de Goa.
2015 I-League venue and Manager changes
Due to the FIFA U-17 World Cup preparations at the Bangalore Football Stadium, the Blues moved a few blocks away to their adopted home — the Sree Kanteerava Stadium. New direct-entrants, Bharat FC shared the Balewadi Sports complex with Pune FC.
January: Bengaluru off to a slow start; Royal Wahingdoh on top
Playing in mediocre ground conditions, defending champions Bengaluru FC were off to a slow start. The first match of this I-League season was a replay of the 2014-15 Federation Cup final. However, this time, the Blues were held 0-0 by a strong Dempo team at the Kanteerava. The second week saw Bengaluru slump to a 3-1 home defeat to a rejuvenated Pune FC. While Mohun Bagan and Dempo picked up regulation wins, Royal Wahingdoh were the surprise package. Three wins in their first three matches saw the newly promoted side occupy the pole position for the month of January.
February: Pune at the helm, Bengaluru slump further
The 31st of January marked the end of the Royal Wahingdoh honeymoon. They were trashed 4-0 at the hands of Bengaluru FC at home. A patched up Salgaocar side found a bit of form as they picked up impressive 0-2 and 3-1 wins over Sporting Goa and East Bengal.
Mohun Bagan however made headlines with a 4-1 win over Bengaluru FC. The win saw Sanjoy Sen and his Mariners increase their unbeaten run to five games. Bagan’s impressive form continued as they clinched a nail-biting 4-3 win over Shillong Lajong.
March: Blues stitch results, Kolkata clubs cash in
Both Bengaluru FC and Mohun Bagan remained unbeaten in the I-League during the month of March. However, the biggest result of the month came from Kingfisher East Bengal who hammered Dempo SC 5-1. Pune FC, who ended February at the top of the table, were dethroned after their draw against Mumbai FC and a 2-0 loss to Royal Wahingdoh. The Goan clubs failed to put up any fight against the top clubs and it was only Salgaocar FC that managed to win two games in March. Dempo SC and Sporting Clube de Goa failed to get wins under their belt.
April: Royal Wahingdoh comes to the party, Goa and Maharashtra clubs falter
Royal Wahingdoh looked determined to get back onto the top spot on the table. They held Bengaluru FC to a 3-3 draw and then were held by Sporting Clube de Goa to another goalless stalemate. The chief highlight of April was their landmark victory against Mohun Bagan. In a last-minute thriller, Royal Wahingdoh edged past Bagan 3-2.
The clubs from Goa and Maharashtra failed to find any rhythm to their I-League campaign. Pune FC’s hopes of regaining the top position were further dented after their loss to East Bengal, Bengaluru FC and Mohun Bagan. The Goan clubs too were at the receiving end on most occasions. North-Eastern club Shillong Lajong recorded the biggest win of I-League 2015, when they defeated Mumbai FC 6-0.
May: Title race heats up, Bagan clinch first I-League title
At the start of May, five teams were in contention for the I-League 2015 title. Mohun Bagan were jolted with back to back losses against bottom-placed teams Bharat FC and Sporting Clube de Goa. They however won back the momentum towards the end of the tournament by defeating Royal Wahingdoh and Sporting. On the other hand, Bengaluru FC reduced the deficit and reached the top of the table with wins over East Bengal and Salgaocar. Wahingdoh, East Bengal and Pune FC failed to keep up with the table toppers’ pace and eventually gave up on the title race.
As the drama at the top of the table unfolded, a full-fledged relegation battle gained more heat in the bottom half of the table. Barring Bagan, Bengaluru, Wahingdoh, East Bengal and Pune, all other teams were liable for relegation. Sporting Clube de Goa escaped elimination with a dominant 4-0 win over Pune FC. Shillong Lajong too hammered East Bengal 5-1 to seal a place in the top division of the I-League. Salgaocar and Dempo locked horns in the most crucial game and it was the former who emerged victorious by 2 goals to nil. Sadly, Dempo was the team that faced relegation.
The last match of the I-League 2015 was played between Bengaluru FC and Mohun Bagan in Bengaluru. The situation was no less than a final as Bagan needed at least a draw to clinch the title. Bengaluru, in search of a win, took the lead in the 41st minute through John Johnson. The home side displayed great courage while defending, but Bello Rasaq struck the equalizer in the 87th minute to secure a 1-1 draw and thereby won the I-League 2015 championship for the Kolkata outfit.
Jackichand Singh of Royal Wahingdoh was named the player of the tournament.