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New-look East Bengal gear up for vital season

HISTORY SHOWS, that whenever Mohun Bagan have won the National League, East Bengal have always made a strong title push the following season.

In fact, the last two times those efforts have brought success. So there is no doubt that the 2015-16 season will see East Bengal make a convincing title challenge at the I-League. But there's an extra feat that awaits the Red and Golds in the upcoming months: they have won the last 5 editions of Calcutta Football League and this season could bring their 6th back-to-back CFL title, a feat achieved in the past by themselves, during 1970-75. Even 40 years later, club supporters fondly recall those victories, and matching that now would be another achievement for the history books.

The transfer season is far from over but the kick-start to the team-building process has been encouraging. And it all began with hiring the right coaching staff. 

After parting ways with head coach Eleco Schattorie, there were many names in contention for the coveted post. There are rumours that their old gaffer and current Dempo coach, fan-favourite Trevor James Morgan will take over the helm after fulfilling his obligations with Kerala Blasters in ISL. But for the time being, the person who has been entrusted with the team is making the fans no less happy.

Biswajt Bhattacharya, an Indian international forward in his day, is well-known as an East Bengal "home-boy". He became a fan of the club as a child, grew up to play for it, and continued that association even after his hanging up the boots. He served them as an assistant coach when Morgan was on the job. His appointment as the head coach carries forward the relationship he has had with the club for most of his life. Known as a reserved, methodical strategist, Bhattacharya has been a coach of United SC in the past, and continues to garner respect from all sections of the East Bengal fan community.

Joining him as assistant coach is another person who made a name for himself by playing for East Bengal. Sammy Omollo, a Kenyan international, came to India to play for East Bengal in the newly-formed National Football League in 1996. Before that, the stout defender had been active in the Kenyan Premier League, playing for Kenya Breweies and Gor Mahia. He spent two seasons at East Bengal before moving on to Mohun Bagan and playing for them for the next 3 years. Though it was there that Omollo tasted National Football League success, his memorable performances wearing the red-and-gold shirt and his intense on-field rivalry with Mohun Bagan striker Chima Okorie, he has always been remembered by the fans as an East Bengal man. He now comes back to his old club as a man with years of coaching experience, and a little bit of trophy luck too. The first two clubs he coached, namely Mahakama and Tusker, both won the Kenyan Premier League under his guiding hands. 

Along with the coaching staff, indications are, the team, too, is set for an overhaul. East Bengal officials delivered the first surprise of the transfer season by signing up Bello Rasaq from arch-rivals Mohun Bagan. Then they went on to hand out long term contracts to some young, upcoming players. Now theiy are making significant additions to their first team, with the upcoming CFL and I-League in mind. One of those players is happens to be Bikash Jairu.

A 25 year old winger, Bikash Jairu's senior career started in 2008 at ONGC, where he spent 3 seasons. Later he moved to Rangdajied United before having a stint at I-League 2nd Division for the short-lived Mumbai Tigers FC. He then joined Salgaocar and played 2 seasons over there, making 30 appearances in I-League and Federation Cup combined and scoring 7 goals. As a player he is finally playing regular first team football, and a move to East Bengal seems to indicate his carrer is on the right track.

Jairu's old Mumbai Tigers teammate Rahul Bheke, too, has signed a season long deal with East Bengal. a 24 year old defender with height and grit, Bheke has played regularly for I-League clubs like Air India and Mumbai FC. This is the first time he will play for a non-Mumbai club, which is a big step for the Maharashtra lad.

Joining Bheke in the defence will be experienced Punjabi defender Rakesh Mashih. The 28 year old Tata Football Academy came to prominence while playing for Mohun Bagan between 2008 and 2013. Under Karim Bencherifa, he became a regular starter. He was integral to the squad that had a 10-match winning streak in 2008-09, and went on to win the Federation Cup. But his career took a hit when back-to-back injuries put him out of action for a long time. He moved to Salgaocar but could not appear in any I-League match for them. He was loaned to Mohammedan Sporting, for whom he went on to make 6 appearances. However, he played a bit part in the inaugural ISL, earning 9 caps for Atletico de Kolkata. His stint at East Bengal, he will hope, shall give him regular first team playing time which, at this point in his career, he desperately needs. 

But Rasaq and Masih are not the only ex Mohun Bagan players East Bengal have signed in the past few weeks. Chinadorai Sathyan Sabeeth, the striker from Tamil Nadu, has also made the jump from the Green and Maroon camp to their arch rivals. At 24, he brings to the plate more experience than most players his age. His senior started way back in 2009, at Chirag United Kerala (then known as Viva Kerala). He played a crucial part in getting his club promoted to the I-League first division, then saving them from relegation the following season. Due to his youth, he was an easy choice for AIFF's 'Arrows' project, an I-League team consisting only of Under-23 players. It was there that he caught the eyes of Mohun Bagan, who signed him in 2012. His 3 seasons at Mohun Bagan were less than remarkable. At the national level, he made 41 appearances and scored only 5 goals. His last two seasons saw him make some frustrating finishing errors, although he developed a knack of scoring in the Kolkata Derbies. It will be interesting to see if his game levels up in his new club.

But the most interesting recruitment East Bengal have done so far this season is South Korean striker Do Dong-hyun. This 21 year old player left his mark for his speed and stamina during his stint at NortEast United at the inaugural ISL. His senior career started down under at the A-League, where he played for Brisbane Roar FC. Only a teenager at that time, he did not get to see much of the first team. Playing 3 matches, he bagged one goal. From there he moved to FC Gifu, a J-League 2nd Division club, before joining NorthEast United through the ISL International Players' Draft. Do holds the unique honour of being the youngest player to occupy a 'Visa Spot'(term used for foreign players) in the A-League. He is still much of a raw talent, but he is tested in Indian climate, which will help him adjust to the new club early on.

Biswajit Bhattacharya knows he has a tough task at hand and he is already getting down to it. He has ensured that East Bengal will be the first club to get started with their pre-season. On 15th July, all East Bengal players will assemble at Kalyani for a rigorous 15 day training camp to get them in shape in time for the Calcutta Football League. At the club tent, the coach sounded determined, 

"I'll tell the players to remember, from waking up in the morning till going to sleep at night, that our jersey is red and gold. Everything we have, we must give away at its service. We are the best team. Winning the trophy is only a matter of time."

Bhattacharya is no stranger to the intense pressure that comes with coaching a big club in Kolkata. But in his cool but humble demeanor, he says rather nonchalantly,

"If we fail, blame it on me."    


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