Kenkre FC: A Story of Inexperience, Determination, and Colossal fighting spirit

From a disappointing start to getting so close to pulling off a miraculous survival, Kenkre’s first-ever Hero I League season can be termed as the story of the season. It could’ve been a fairytale had Kenkre escaped the relegation in the last game of the season. The way Kenkre took everyone by surprise showed that Mumbai’s footballers and clubs can make a mark at the national level given ample time.

Mumbai’s 5-year absence in the Hero I-League ended with Kenkre FC participating in the 2021–22 season. City of Dream’s last representative were Mumbai FC, who got defuncted after relegation from then country’s top division, I-League in 2017.

Historic debut in the I-League:

After former champions Chennai City FC failed to meet the criteria to play in the I-League, the league committee and the AIFF blessed I-League second division runners-up Kenkre FC and allowed them to participate in the Hero I-League 2021-22 season. 22 years after the club’s inception, on March 4, 2022, 3 months after the scheduled date due to the COVID-induced break, the Mumbai-based club kicked off their maiden Hero I-League campaign. Kenkre did well in the first match against Real Kashmir FC as they managed to earn a point. Vijay Nagappan scored the historic first goal for the club.

The initial hurdles:

Kenkre failed to replicate the heroics of the first match as they went on to lose the next 4 matches in a row. In these four matches, the boys from Mumbai conceded 14 goals and scored only twice. These two goals were scored by Lester Fernandes and Akeraj Martins in their 6-2 loss to defending champions Gokulam Kerala FC. Positivity in these 4 matches? Title contenders Mohammedan SC struggled and scored only once. In the next match, Kenkre faced fellow newcomers Rajasthan United and the match ended goalless. Kenkre was unlucky not to win this match.

Continuous improvement in continuous impediment:

After the draw against Rajasthan United, Kenkre lost 6 matches and ended phase one with only 2 points. But in these 6 matches, Kenkre showed character and fighting spirit. All these 6 matches were close and the margin of defeat in all these matches was just one goal. The Akhil Kothari-led side found a new goalscorer in Ranjeet Pandre. In defense, Nam and Suraj Negi were regular names in commentators’ complements. Both the club’s goalkeepers Padam Chhetri and Tenzin Samudop were brilliant between the sticks. Vijay, Akeraj, Siddharth, Aman, Khongsit, and Aniket were the creators in the middle of the park. The lack of experience, the lack of foreign recruitments, and the absence of a leader were obvious to all. But Kenkre players and head coach Akhil Kothari were stubborn to change everyone’s perspectives and they did!

The revival:

The improvement was quite evident in the latter stages of Phase 1 when players passed quite confidently and showed more attacking intent. It eventually did pay off in phase 2 in the relegation group, with their back against the wall, Kenkre picked their first-ever win in the I-League in the 3-0 win against Sudeva. This massive win was a major boost for the Kenkre squad as they remained unbeaten for three more games and got very close to avoiding relegation. The likes of Nam, Zacharie, Akeraj & Aniket Panchal performed their hearts out and helped the club in a huge manner. The pairing of Nam & Zacharie solidified the defence and Aniket started controlling the game in the middle of the park hence minimizing the opposition goal threats. Akeraj with Vijay & Ranjeet formed a good attacking trio in the final third.

A late shot at survival:

In 4 out of 5 matches in phase 2, Kenkre found the back of the net on 5 occasions with 5 different goal scorers. With 3 wins and a draw, Kenkre came out all guns blazing with a late charge to avoid relegation and forced the relegation race to the final matchday of phase 2. Kenkre fell short by a goal in the last match and faced a heartbreaking defeat to Indian Arrows.

Even in this tough season, Kenkre promoted many young and local players. Kenkre gave a platform to many Mumbai players who did not have the expertise to play at such a high level before. For players like Pravitto, Yash, Suraj Negi, Aniket Panchal, Arya Gandharv, Aman Gaikwad, Aravindraj, Al-Azhar Delhiwala, and Siddharth Colaco this season was their first-ever season in a top-level national competition. The club also provided a huge platform to young coach Akhil Kothari.

Inexperience, lack of leading figures, shoestring budget, and a COVID-induced break were the major challenges for Kenkre yet their maiden appearance in the I-League will be remembered for their remarkable turnaround and their determination. Despite all this, Kenkre’s story will inspire many upcoming football players from Mumbai and hopefully more clubs will show positive interest in playing in the I-League and I-League qualifiers in the future.

For Trial related updates: Latest trials updates in Mumbai Football

Also Read: From Partizan to Mohammedan, Stojanovic comes full circle in Black and White

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