MANJAPPADA, THE MOST PROLIFIC fan group of Kerala Blasters, took the unprecedented step of boycotting tonight's match in protest of the management's apathy to their demands.
Manjappada, who are one of the biggest fan groups in the country, have been at the core of creating a environment at Kerala Blasters home games for a few seasons now, and they have made themselves distinct for their colourful tifos, banner artwork and consistent support for the team.
But even since Kerala Blasters caught a winless streak that saw them slowly fall back from the race to finish top four in ISL 2018-19, the fans became dissatisfied with the team's performance, especially with the head coach David James.
Once a crowd favourite at Kochi after he took Kerala Blasters to the final in ISL 2014, David James has faced criticism in recent months for not being able to optimally utilize KBFC's attacking capabilities. As KBFC's bad form continued this season, calls for him to be fired grew louder. Many members of Manjappada demanded that the KBFC management should replace David James as head coach, and with every loss or disheartening draw more and more fans joined that chorus.
But the KBFC management has not taken any such step so far and the fans' patience has finally run out; they believe that KBFC, a club known in the country and beyond for its high popularity, should give due importance and acknowledgement to their opinion, and seek to deliver results on the pitch.
To make themselves heard, Manjappada decided to stage a boycott of tonight's match between Kerala Blasters and Jamshedpur FC.
So as Kerala Blasters fought hard to recover from a deficit and earn a 1-1 draw against the Red Miners, the stands at Kochi's Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium were sparsely populated; not something one associates with KBFC home games at all. The official attendance was 8451, a fraction of the turnout these matches usually experience; and a historic low for KBFC's home games in ISL.
David James, in a pre-match interview, was asked about the fan protest and he didn't hide his dismay at how things have turned out,
"This place has become a wonderful place to play football. I think the opponents really enjoy coming here when the usual Kerala Blasters supporters turn up and make it a wonderful environment to play in. That's why people want to play in India, to play in front of our sort of crowd. But unfortunately, that's not something we can control. I think if you look at this season, there have been a couple of incidents - at home as well - which have cost us wins, points. Again, out of our control, as they say. The long term plan for us is to bring through players who can perform for us in future seasons as well... it is a tall order but we need to win... I hope the supporters will turn up and be behind us, and our team will once again give a hundred percent, and we will look to win."
Instead of large banners backing the team, two black banners caught the eye at the stadium; one saying "Supporters, Not Customers!" and another proclaiming "We Deserve Better."
According to some KBFC fans present in the stadium, some staff from the organizers approached them and asked them to remove one of the banners. They initially complied but within minutes tied it up again.
Tonight's draw leaves Kerala Blasters in the 7th spot with 9 points from 10 matches. They have not managed to secure victory for the last 9 games straight, the longest winless streak in franchise history.
Tonight's performance is unlikely to satisfy the protesting fans. The resentment as well as protests might escalate if the current form continues and the management is perceived to be doing nothing to implement changes for the better, or taking the fans for granted.