KOCHI: It might be the grand season opener for the Indian Super League featuring two of its fiercest rivals. But the clash between two-time champions ATK and two-time runners-up Kerala Blasters has to it the feel of a Manchester United ‘Legends’ game.
Taking to the Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium on Thursday will be four personalities who were key cogs of the United winning machine between 1997 to 2012 under Sir Alex Ferguson.
Teddy Sheringham, who scored the dramatic equaliser against Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final and then assisted Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to secure a historic treble, is ATK’s head coach. In the opposite dugout will be Rene Meulensteen, Ferguson’s trusted deputy from 2007 until his final days at the club.
Meulensteen is joined by defender Wes Brown and Bulgarian sniper Dimitar Berbatov, who are well past their prime, but expected to offer a lot to the Kochi outfit this season.
Between them, the four have won eight Premier Leagues, and two Champions Leagues, FA Cups and League Cups each, for the Red Devils over almost two decades. While Teddy is still starting out in his new vocation, Meulensteen has years of coaching knowledge behind him. “I know Teddy from the days he played for United. I didn’t work with him as he left just before I joined them, but we have crossed paths before. I am happy to welcome him to Kochi and I hope he can congratulate me for the win after the match,” said Meulensteen.
“I will definitely congratulate him if he wins. Otherwise, we will surely shake hands. I will also have a cautious chat with him back at the team hotel to find out his plans for the game,” Sheringham retorted.
Meulensteen, who also coached the United reserves and youth sides from 2001-06, said the huge United following in India was one of the reasons why he chose to take up this adventure. “I knew about the ISL and the clubs, especially Kerala, when Blasters approached me.
I also knew of the fantastic fans and how fanatic they were about United and what it meant for them,” said the Blasters gaffer. One of the first things he did was to dial his former trainees — Berbatov and Brown. “It was only logical I used my contacts. West and Berba were at United for many years and they know me and the style I like. But most importantly, they were very, very motivated to come here and start this adventure together,” said Meulensteen.
Apart from Berba and Brown, the United camaraderie is extended by ATK’s 24-year-old defender Tom Thorpe and 36-year-old Blasters custodian Paul Rachubka, both of whom have graduated from United’s Carrington facility.
But at the twilight of their careers, will the stars be able to replicate in the ISL what they did in the United red? “They will bring in a lot of experience. They played many years in the Premier League and Champions League and won many trophies,” said Meulensteen.
“I am sure the Kerala fans will love Berba and Brown. These are players who can produce moments of magic. So, sit back and enjoy,” said Sheringham.