When East Bengal announced the departure of Khalid Jamil as head coach on Thursday, it came as no surprise. Speculation about the future of the former Aizawl FC coach at the Kolkata club had been growing ever since their fourth-placed finish in the I-League.
When veteran Subhash Bhowmick was brought on as a technical director ahead of the Super Cup, the writing seemed to be on the wall for Jamil. A thumping at the hands of the Bengaluru FC in the finals of the cup competition meant speculation had reached a crescendo and the inevitable was near.
Jamil is only the latest casualty in the trigger-happy world of Kolkata football where head coaches are hired and fired in the blink of an eye. Ever since Bhowmick himself handed in his resignation from that role for East Bengal in 2009, the Red and Golds have now gone through eight different personnel in the position.
If that picture isn’t grim enough, East Bengal have been outdone by their arch-rivals Mohun Bagan in this department. The Maroon and Greens have gone through eight different coaches themselves but have managed to achieve this 'feat' in two years fewer than their rivals.
Rarely has any coach of the two Kolkata giants held on to his position for more than a year with Sanjoy Sen’s three-year stint at Mohun Bagan (2014-18) being the only notable exception.
In the glitzy world of the Kolkata giants, coaches are the most indispensable pawns in a system where the stakes are the highest. Expectations at the two clubs remain sky high every year, with nothing less than a league or cup title enough to satisfy the board and fans alike.
Those expectations remain unfulfilled as East Bengal are yet to win the I-League ever since it was introduced and have won lifted the Indian top-flight league trophy since 2004.
The Mariners have endured an almost similar fate in the top flight in recent years though they did manage to capture the I-League title in 2014-15. It was that league success which broke Mohun Bagan’s 12-year wait that afforded Sen an extended run as the head coach. A Federation Cup trophy and two runners-up finishes in the subsequent years saw Sen continue for a fourth season.
However, a run of two wins in seven matches culminating with a home loss to Chennai City FC was enough for the tide to turn on Sen as he submitted his resignation. Unruly behaviour was seen at the press-conference where he announced his decision to leave where sections of the fans attempted to throw bricks towards the beleaguered coach. The moment things went pear-shaped, Sen’s I-League title triumph did not matter at all. If he hadn’t handed in resignation, the sacking would inevitably have come.
In Jamil’s case, it did not matter that he had led Aizawl to fairytale I-League title with a shoe-string budget that was one-fifth of the total spend of the Kolkata clubs just last year.
He might have been the toast of the town when he came in at East Bengal but life as a coach at Kolkata is ruthless and punishing. Wins are expected in every game but losses are mourned.
It is a cut-throat world with the two clubs generally being the biggest spenders in the league. The duties of a coach in the setup remain mostly restricted to the field with players bought and sold at the whims of the club management.
The lavish spending brings with it lofty ambitions but fickle-mindedness runs high amongst the powers to be at the clubs. Long-term vision rarely exists with instant success being demanded at every turn.
In-demand coaches are sought most of the time and are entrusted with these steep expectations. Mohun Bagan’s appointment of Sankarlal Chakraborty is contrary to this philosophy but it remains to be seen how long it lasts.
Once things start going south, fan dissent can quickly snowball. The media attention the two clubs receive locally only further exacerbates the situation. The problems if any, might stem from shoddy recruiting to player mutinies but when it all boils down to the end, it is the head coach that inevitably ends up becoming the sacrificial lamb.
In the glamorous world of Kolkata football, coaches are in the bottom rung when it comes to job security but top of the pile when it comes to job expectations.
Till the time long-term strategy is not deployed, the job of the coach will remain a poisoned chalice. Jamil can take comfort in the fact that he isn’t the first, and neither will he be the last East Bengal coach to fall prey to the pressure-cooker that is Kolkata football for now.