KOCHI: There was a time not very long ago when the superclubs of Indian football had almost half a dozen Keralites in their squad. East Bengal and Mohun Bagan all brought in firepower from the southern state, but it is players from the North East who are in vogue these days.
But deviating from the trend, this season's East Bengal features four young footballers from Kerala who have delivered for the Red and Gold Brigade -- Jobby Justin, Mirshad K, V P Suhair and Ubaid C K.
They are the largest representation of Keralites in an East Bengal squad since I M Vijayan, Jo Paul Ancheri, Suresh Muttath and Vinu Jose were pitted together at the turn of the millennium.
“We are together most of the time and share a flat. I think the four of us have made life easier for each other in new surroundings,” said goalkeeper Ubaid who has kept back-to-back clean sheets against Indian Arrows and Minerva Punjab FC.
The former Air India custodian who turns 28 next month is the eldest of the lot. “It is an opportunity that has come late, but I think I am at a perfect age for a shot-stopper,” said Ubaid.
Mirshad is another goalkeeper who was acquired following superb performances for Gokulam Kerala FC in the Kerala Premier League. The 24-year-old from Kasargod is a wicketkeeper who switched to goalkeeping in his high school -- the M S Dhoni story in reverse.
“I didn’t expect much chances in my first season. But after playing in practice matches against ISL sides like FC Goa and Bengaluru FC, I was picked for I-League,” said Mirshad. East Bengal won two and drew one match in which Mirshad stood between the sticks before he was struck by an ankle injury.
Talking of injuries, none has been unfortunate this season than Suhair. The striker had scored five goals from as many matches in the Calcutta Football League when he tore his hamstring. After recovery, he was set to return to the starting 11 against Shillong Lajong FC on December 9 when he suffered a bad ankle injury on the eve of the game.
“Things haven’t gone to my plan, but there is the next season to look forward to. I haven’t decided on my future yet," said Suhair who has been out for two months since.
Jobby, meanwhile, is the star of the show. An injury to Trinidad and Tobago striker Willis Plaza opened the doors for him to the first 11 on January 2. He returned the trust shown in him by coach Khalid Jamil by scoring in the next two fixtures against Churchill Brothers and Minerva.
"The coach is very friendly and keeps in touch. He has given us plenty of confidence and we are still fighting for the title. A win against Gokulam Kerala on Saturday will take us a step closer," said Jobby.