It was a perfect weekend for the fans as Khuri Irani hosted one of the most important people at Kerala Blasters, club owner Nikhil Bhardwaj. As Khuri rightly mentioned, the live program just keeps getting bigger and better with every episode.
This is how Nikhil described his first reaction when he heard about his father taking up an ISL club.
“To be honest, there wasn’t any expectation going in. My first experience itself was so captivating that I did not have a chance to think about getting into a football team. I was very much like a fan when I first got it. This is the first season that I have got into the management side professionally. When I first saw a match, I was like wow! I fell in love with the club.”
We are all very much excited to know about the roles and responsibilities of each person involved with the club. This is what Nikhil had to say about his roles.
“In a club there are various aspects. There are the players, staff, youth academy and everything and then you have the brand building part of it. KBFC is such a huge club and you are always thinking about taking about it to the next step. We try to make KBFC amongst India’s top sporting teams. As a brand, KBFC has fans in the US, in the UAE, in Poland. It is good and it is growing. When you have players coming from different parts of the world, you start getting fans from there. People know about the club and that is a huge encouragement for us. With respect to recruitment, I do work very closely with Karolis. The sporting side is more his space. Then you have the marketing, operations, and finances on the business side. That is where I come in.”
Nikhil also spoke about the presence of Manjappada on a global front.
“I feel like that it is the best thing that can happen. I am also a fan of the club and to see that the same group represents India on so many stages is a proud feeling. I have seen Manjappada’s presence in cricket matches too and for people to recognize Manjappada as a fan group as a club to be at the center of it has a lot of meaning. It is a proud feeling. We are having discussions on how can move things together and perhaps the fans are the most important aspect. I wish I was there with them to enjoy.
The sheer amount of fan following the club has experienced for the past six years has definitely player a role in encouraging both international and domestic players to join the club. However, hearing how it has helped from the owner himself is what the fans wanted.
When I made my decision on universities, there is a certain reputation that I think about. The first thing a player also sees is the same. All of the players we signed are of certain pedigree and the first thing they do is to see what KBFC is. Then you first see the club and the first picture is of a huge yellow wall. That itself is captivating compared to other teams which doesn’t have it. It is definitely a major thing though not the only thing. It has been bigger than what the players expected. “
It has been a while since the club has enjoyed some success and the management’s approach this season has been quite visionary. Here’s what Nikhil had to say on this year’s plans.
“From a management’s perspective, we are making a lot of changes structurally. We want everything we are doing to yield results. Anything less than top 4 would be a disappointment considering what we have been putting on. We have finished in not-so-ideal situations. We finished 9th and then the next year we finished 7th and that is progress. And now we want to finish in the top 4. With a new sporting director overlook the entire sporting side of things, it gives us confident that we can go in that direction where we will see a positive step.”
There have been major changes in the squad every year at the club and consistency is what the fans are looking for. Here’s Nikhil’s take on retaining the core and maintaining some consistency in the squad.
“Consistency is the key. To a certain extent, the nature of Indian football is like that but there are clubs like ATK, BFC who have been consistent. There are a lot of tools this year to help us do that. There are now 10-15 guys who have been there with us for some time now and now you know who you are building your future around.”
Kerala has plethora of local talent and as a club KBFC has been successful in identifying some of the local talents from the state. Nikhil also mentioned about the club’s plan on this front.
“We relaunched our grassroots program. One is your football academy and the other is the base of the pyramid that would take 5-6 years of investment. We have launched the Young Blasters program but unfortunately Covid happened. We wanted to kick start it during summer. Kerala has a lot of public and private schools. The idea was to partner with them and deploy our coaches. The idea was to work with kids at a young age.
Apart from Karolis, we have Rafique who takes care of the entire grassroots program. He has been instrumental in picking players from the Santosh Trophy team and from other local tournaments. Hopefully, with the right development and right coaching we are trying to provide to these local players, you will see a lot more players from the state. If you look at Sahal, Rahul KP, Arjun Jayraj and Hakku, the moment you start having those guys, a lot more kids will start looking up to these players and say these guys are from Kerala and I want to do that.
To a certain extent, I think that in many ways how the league is working has helped these youngsters. They have taken a massive effort. Clubs are doing the right things and the league is pushing clubs to have their academies in place. Having grounds, infrastructure and basic facilities is always important. They will always learn but there is big gap if they are not growing in the right environment.”
A club owned stadium someday has been a dream of every fan. Here’s what Nikhil said when asked about it.
“At some point last year, dad did mention that we have to go long term and the first step towards long term is this (club’s own stadium). It unlocks a lot of restrictions. Today, you are dependent on other people for your stadium but we are lucky to have the support. But having your own stadium has a whole different meaning. Today, the fans sit very far from the pitch. When you have your own stadium you can fix all that. It is definitely a part of the vision. In our heads at least, it is a little bit away. The priority right now is on the academy and the players. As a long term, the stadium is a part of the vision.”
From an owner’s perspective, Nikhil also spoke in length about the things that happen inside a club and the challenges the club has been facing this season.
“It has been in phases. We had a new team coming in and we had planned for Karolis to come in April and set up things. Kibu could not come in early as he also had to stay back. You want players playing. Six months without football is a big setback coming into the preseason. We worked around a way and luckily we were able to get the coaching staff together with Karolis early. From a management point of view, it is a great opportunity. When the focus is on going digital, it give us also an opportunity to try and figure out how get more connected with the fans, try and build a brand. That is a big part of what we are trying to do, trying to increase engagement and create touch points for fans to interact with the club.”
Last year’s preseason was cut short due to various reasons and that really made things difficult for the team. This year has been no different with the pandemic and teams are struggling to get all the players and staff together. Nikhil had his views on this too.
“It has been a challenge especially because Covid is still happening. Actively on a day to day basis you are waking up thinking nothing is happening to my players. Credit to the entire team. They have taken on tremendous work. Personally, for me since it is my first year, it has been a tremendous learning for me. Last year was also difficult and when you go through failure (in terms of results), our mentality this year is top four and that is how we are going about it. In football you wither win or you learn. Last year it was about learning and this year we hope it is about winning. “
Nikhil also took in some questions about the players.
On signing Nishu Kumar: “To be honest, the first thing that helps us when we go into recruitment is the fans. The starting point becomes easier. On the conversation we had with Nishu, we are of the same age, and the fact that you are able to relate the experience helps. As a kid I want to know where I am going to be five years from now and that is the sort of plan we gave Nishu. We wanted him to come in, take up more responsibility. A lot of credit goes to BFC as well for bringing him up from their academy to the main team and then to the National team. We told him now that you have achieved all of that, the next step for you is to come on and take on the responsibility. Always a big feeling when an Indian player is coming to the club.”
On International recruiting: “A lot of the times, when they see the structure of the club, and where you want to be in the next five years. There is a set of fan base in the UAE, we wanted to achieve it but it did not go well with the preseason. We wanted to show the players that this is not a small league. If you are coming to India, it is not a step down. If that is the mentality, we don’t want you. You need to think of India as one that is growing rapidly and that is a fact. Our five year plan is that we want to win but winning consistently is even more important. It needs to be about seeing the improvement year after year.”
On ISL clubs collaborating with foreign clubs: “If you look at the league, there have been some that is an investment and it is fantastic, it is a great validation for our league. There are people recognizing the sort of opportunities that India can provide. To have someone investing into it, it is fantastic. It is one thing to have a partnership and mutually benefitting partnership is more important. We have been in discussions with clubs to understand what we want and personally, we still believe we are in a state where we can grow. The fact that other clubs are coming to India will help our case as well.”
On parting ways with some senior players of the club: “There’s obviously always emotion involved. It is never easy to let go. The coldness is not from a financial point of view. There will be a time when a player comes in and then goes out. That is football. As Kibu mentioned, the biggest player in the team, it is the team. Fans have to get used to it like how we get used to it. You have to realize that it is for the club’s good. Both Sandesh and Bart will be missed. With Sandesh, there were few things that he also wanted and we had to respect that. Nothing but thankfulness and gratefulness to them for being a part of the club.”
Kerala Blasters parted ways with Muthoot and now have Byju’s as their title sponsor. Nikhil also shed some light on this new partnership.
“It is really special for many reasons. It is a club from Kerala, we have players from Kerala and now it is even bigger pride that we are supported by one of the best brands in the country. There are now four brands from Kerala who will be sponsoring and us we are being true to the state as well. We want home grown talent in terms of players but we want the same with brands from Kerala too.”
As an owner it is important to know your club’s strengths well and its weaknesses better. Nikhil also spoke about his take on the club’s strengths and weaknesses.
“I will start with the weaknesses. No matter how other clubs put up a team at the end it all comes down to the preparations that you have. That is one thing. We wish we had more time with the preseason. That we could have worked and focused on building fitness. I don’t know if it is a weakness but that is something every team is facing. It becomes a crucial part. The strength is having depth. A lot of players have been retained. Even from the coaching point of view, we have someone who can take over the philosophy that was built last year. Credit to Eelco for bringing in a style that the fans appreciated. That is something we also wanted to move towards. You are building from that and you also have players who know it. “
The club has been doing a great job with respect to fan engagement with a lot of activities and decisions that involve the fans. Nikhil also spoke about the fan engagement plans the club envisions.
“This year, we are always talking to fan groups to see and find a way to make the experience better. It is not just about matches. We are thinking about memberships and other aspects. We are trying to create touch points to the fans. Definitely there will be more chances to engage with the club and the players. “
Nikhil was also asked to express his views on having such a huge fan base and if he thrives on it or gets pressurized by the sheer volume and this is what he had to say.
“In some ways, I thrive on it. It is good to have some pressure, it keeps you on the edge and makes you think what to do next. Fans are educated. For a fan to be able to see beyond what is happening, there are fan articles on why things at the club are happening a certain way. For fans top think beyond results is in itself a huge plus for us. It is also a big push for us to up our game every single time. The last two years have not been easy and we are thankful to the fans. We want them to trust the process. I hope the results will speak for themselves.”
One Indian player if Nikhil wants to sign this season for Kerala he says would be Brandon Fernandas.
“I know he is in a different club and I don’t want to show any disrespect but I really like the way he plays. There are a lot of kids coming in through the academy.”
As a part of this season’s activities, Manjappada has planned a Flags for All and Banners for Everyone event. Nikhil also conveyed his best wishes for the fan club’s events.
“It is incredible and in many ways it makes our job easier when a fan club takes up these initiatives. If you go to the north of Kerala or south of Kerala, they have their own way of expressing the love. It is incredible. I remember in the first game against Hyderabad last year, my friends were surprised to see the sea of yellow. Even in Bengaluru, they showed their sheer power. And I am so grateful to the fan club.”
When quizzed on who Nikhil would consider as the biggest rival and strongest opposition for Kerala Blasters, this was his response.
“The biggest rivals I think would be Bengaluru FC. There are some in terms of ATK but the fans add the extra layer so I would say Bengaluru would be the biggest fan rival.
On the strongest opposition, I would say ATK. The simple reason that ATK enabled to keep the main team that won the championship. The players know what they are getting from the coach so ATK is the strongest team but we have had a good track record against them.”
Nikhil also mentioned that the most important part of football according to him is the intent in players to win the game irrespective of the situation of the game. He said that he will be in Goa during the season. Nikhil did have a final message to the fans.
“First thing is a thank you. We don’t get fans to do this very often. There is a lot and lot of thankfulness for everything you guys do. In a way, you are the heartbeat of the club. We also try to derive a lot of things from your energy and you guys. The first thing I want to say is a thank you. The second obviously is that we are going to miss you, not just from the management but also for the new players. I wish the new players could have experienced this. Most importantly, we have tried to put the building blocks in place for the next five years. So trust the process. We will hopefully get to celebrate soon.”
-Ashwin R Chandran