The footballing story of the city of Hyderabad is indeed one that should capture the fascination of football fans in this country. While the city has churned out some fine footballing talents like Mohammed Habib, Syed Nayeemuddin, Tulsidas Balaram, Peter Thangaraj, Yousaf Khan and Shabbir Ali who have been part of the golden generation of Indian football in the 50s and 60s and also in the 70s and early 80s have dominated football in the national stage. But as the 90s rolled in and we made our way into the new millennium, Hyderabad slowly started to fade away from the footballing discussions at the national level.
Hyderabad and its then state of Andhra Pradesh was the breeding grounds of top football players and managers who dominated Indian football in the 50s and 60s. Hyderabad won back to back Santosh trophies in 1956 and ’57, Andhra won the Santosh trophy in 1965 but it was Hyderabad Police who brought major accolades to the city. They went on to win 5 straight Rovers Cup competitions from 1950-54 and 4 more in 1957, 1960, 1962 and 1963. Hyderabad Police also brought the Durand Cup to Hyderabad by winning the competition 4 times in 1950, 1954, 1957 and 1961. The city of Hyderabad’s last football success in circa 1963-64, brought on a long wait for a major footballing title until a Spaniard and his band of boys brought back some of the lost pride in 2022.
Hyderabad FC – A new beginning.
With the onset of the National Football League in 1996-97 and then the I-League and now the ISL, Hyderabad lacked a representative in top division Indian football until the creation of Hyderabad FC in 2019. With FC Pune City disbanding in 2018, their sporting rights were acquired by Telengana based businessman Vijay Madduri and Varun Tripuraneni and after a wait of almost more than 50 years, Hyderabad had a football team competing in the top echelons of Indian football.
The 2019-20 season for Hyderabad was an opportunity to finally make a mark on the national stage after an absence of almost over 50 years but it turned out to be a false dawn. With very little time to assemble a squad, Hyderabad signed almost every player who was contracted to FC Pune City and also their former manager Phil Brown. An opening day 5-0 nil defeat paved the way for a disastrous debut ISL season. Phil Brown was relieved of his duties after the team managed only one win in 12 games and assistant coach Xavier Lopez guided the Nizams for the rest of the season as they finished last with just 2 wins and 10 points to their name.
Manolo Marquez – Hope Personified
Before the appointment of Manolo Marquez, Hyderabad FC had handed over the charges to Albert Roca, who swayed by the green pastures of Camp Nou decided to join the coaching unit at FC Barcelona, leaving Hyderabad to appoint the former Barcelona born manager. Manolo brought with him a fresh approach, a possession-based fast style of play that is so pleasing to the eye. But all good things take time and Hyderabad had to learn it the hard way.
Their second season in top-flight football went on a dream start, 3 draws and 2 wins in their first 5 games, Hyderabad looked on song until 3 back to back defeats rocked their campaign. Hyderabad steadied their ship after the defeats going on an 11 match unbeaten run which set up their final league stage encounter with FC Goa as a virtual quarter-final which the Nizams had to win if they wanted to make it to the play-offs. FC Goa then under Juan Fernando held Hyderabad to a goalless stalemate that saw the Gaurs pip Hyderabad to take the final play-offs spot. While the second season was close and yet so far story, the progress the Nizams were making under Manolo was applaudable and the Hyderabad management decided to keep the Spaniard around.
ISL 2021-22 – A Dream Fulfilled
The hurt of missing out on the play-offs so narrowly the previous season can make or break a football club that is still in its nascent stages. While Manolo Marquez returned, Hyderabad had let go of their Spanish overseas contingent only retaining Joao Victor and Joel Chianese. Hyderabad also had to give up Liston Colaco their starlet of the 2020-21 season to ATK Mohun Bagan. Hyderabad choose to fill in the gaps left behind by leaving players with foreign recruits who had previous experience of playing in the ISL. In came Bart Ogbeche, Juanan and Edu Garcia (later replaced by Khassa Camara) to solidify the Hyderabad squad. Aniket Jadhav was brought in to fill the shoes left empty by Liston.
The start to the 2021-22 season was far from perfect for the team, losing to Chennaiyin on a solitary goal. Hyderabad had to channelise all their football prowess after the opening match defeat and they went on an 8 game spree without losing, drubbing 5 past NorthEast and 6 past Odisha during their unbeaten run. Kerala Blasters brought a halt to the Hyderabad juggernaut and a draw against Chennaiyin in the next game would have brought back the doubts of the 2020-21 season but Manolo Marquez and his men looked better equipped to handle pressure and expectations in 2021-22.
After losing to Kerala which saw the end of their unbeaten run and dropping points against Chennaiyin, Hyderabad needed to hit the ground running against SC East Bengal in their next encounter and they didn’t dismay, hitting 4 goals past the torchbearers. The Nizams won a 3-2 thriller against Odisha next before scoring 5 past NorthEast once again. This time the Mariners put a stop to Hyderabad’s winning sprint but the Nizams were quickly back on the horse after succumbing to ATK Mohun Bagan.
They won 3 straight games again after their defeat to the Mariners beating Bengaluru, FC Goa and the Kerala Blasters and secured their place in the playoffs for the first time post their 2-1 win over the Blasters with 2 games to spare. Securing a maiden play-offs position, Hyderabad were dreaming big, a chance to win the league shield was up for grabs, but a 3-0 defeat to Jamshedpur, where they missed a host of first-team players due to Covid-19, in their penultimate encounter dashed their dreams of winning the shield. A win against Mumbai City in their final game ensured the second spot in the league table.
Breaching the “Mariners” Moat
Playing their first play-offs, Hyderabad were pitted against the might of ATK Mohun Bagan, rejuvenated under Juan Fernando, whose Goan side had put a full stop to Hyderabad’s hope in 2020-21. Hyderabad in their previous 4 attempts at the Mariners hurdle, had failed to beat them and the star-studded Kolkata side was bookies’ favourite to win the two-legged tie. It proved to be a mammoth encounter over two legs, Hyderabad went down to a Roy Krishna strike 18 minutes in the first game but bounced back just before halftime through a Bart Ogbeche strike.
Hyderabad turned up the ante in the second half and goals from Mohammed Yasir and Javier Siveiro made sure the Nizams went into the second leg with a 3-1 scoreline in their favour. The onus was on ATK Mohun Bagan in the second leg to reduce the 2 goal deficit and they lined up to heavy with Kiyan Nassiri, Roy Krishna, Hugo Boumous and Joni Kauko orchestrating attacks, one after another. The Mariners’ constant threat was finally rewarded after 70 minutes of frantic football. Then Kattimani channelled his inner spidey senses to deny Roy Krishna second from point-blank range and Hyderabad had finally cracked the Mariners puzzle, defying the odds to book themselves a date with destiny at the Fatorda on the 20th of March against the Kerala Blasters.
Kattimani – Ghosts of Fatorda Past
The fans were allowed back in the stadium for the first since the pandemic broke out and the Fatorda was wrapped in yellow. Kerala Blasters were playing their third ISL final and looking to get their hands on a maiden ISL title, to Hyderabad this was all new. In a first half where both the teams were cautious against each other, Alvaro Vazquez hit the post for Kerala Blasters and towards the dying end of the first half Javier Siveiro’s header from Mohammed Yasir’s free-kick was saved by Prabhsukhan Gill.
The game lighted up in the second half with Hyderabad taking the charge and testing Gill in goal. But it was Kerala who broke the duck in the 69th minute. Rahul KP picked the pockets of Akash Mishra and the bouncing ball was brought down by Jeakson and moved sideways to Rahul. With Mishra out of position and the Hyderabad defence retreating, Rahul decided to cut in and run straight towards the Hyderabad goal and shot at Kattimani’s goal and the keeper let the ball squeeze underneath him into the net. At that moment all those memories of Stiven Mendonza and the 2015 final at the Fatorda might have flashed across the minds of Hyderabad fans watching the game if not maybe across Kattimani’s.
Gill looked secured in the Kerala goal, saving Ogbeche’s free-kick and Hyderabad could have been easily down to two goals, Kattimani saved a Luna free-kick but the ball was guided straight onto Leskovic’s path but the big Croatian defender failed to bring the ball under control. Time was running out for Hyderabad. A Holicharan Narzary free-kick from Kerala’s right was headed out by Leskovic but the ball looped up and before it could hit the ground, Sahil Tavora struck a sweet volley that swirled and nestled in the net beating Gill in goal and Hyderabad had managed to force extra-time.
With both teams failing to score in extra time the match went to penalties.
Kerala Blasters were taking the first kick of the shootout and it was Marko Leskovic stepping up for the Blasters. He tried the place the ball on the right-hand side but ended up hitting it at a comfortable height and Kattimani guessed right and drew first blood. Joao Victor took the first penalty for the Nizams and his shot beat Gill in both and height. Nishu Kumar stepped up next for the Blasters with the pressure of having to score or there will be clear daylight between them and Hyderabad in the shootout. Nishu went right and low and Kattimani was once again up for it and saved the spot-kick. But it was deemed Kattimani was already encroaching out of the goal line before Nishu took the shot, the Blasters full-back got another bite of the cherry. He went right and low again and so did Kattimani, saving yet again and Hyderabad couldn’t have had a better start to the shootout.
Siveiro went to take the next spot-kick and his effort went high and wide. Ayush Adhikari made it 1-1 for the Blasters as he wrong-footed Kattimani and scored Blasters’ first penalty in the shootout. Khassa Camara who joined Hyderabad after the AFCON scored with nonchalance and Hyderabad’s 1 goal advantage was restored. Jeakson Singh, India’s only goal scorer in the U-17 World Cup stepped up for Kerala and went high and wide towards Kattimani’s left and the Hyderabad keeper guessed right and saved his third penalty in the shoot-out and surely this was his redemption from 2015. Holicharan Narzary stepping up next just had to score to get a major football trophy to Hyderabad after almost 55 years, and he did just that and Hyderabad were once again the champions of football in India.