When a Jovial Juan met a Ferocious Ferrando.

 When a Jovial Juan met a Ferocious Ferrando

Courtesy: Mohun Bagan SG Media

Mohun Bagan’s first ever ISL season ended up after missing out on the Shield as well as the trophy from a handshaking distance. Few months later the team was embarrassed out of the AFC Cup 6-0 in the Inter-Zonal Semifinal. In the next ISL season, after 2 wins, came two back-to-back losses, one of them being a 5-1 thumping to Mumbai, and then two draws. Reports emerged that there was a rift between the coach and the dressing room and soon enough came the replacement in form of a young bubbly Catalan with his distinctive just-overgrown hair, keen focused eyes, modest T shirt and skinny fit jeans. India was slowly recovering from the wrath of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ISL was still being held in a tight bio-bubble in Goa. Stadiums were lifeless and squads too were going through their individual mental battles due to being completely cut off from family and friends. It was at this time that Juan Ferrando Fenoll had to stabilise the cannon struck ship of the mighty Mariners. 
Mohun Bagan’s next defeat came in the match which could have given them the League Shield had they won it. Ever since the I League Premiership back in 2015, Mohun Bagan fans were by now accustomed and kind of immune to a few years of near misses before another top table finish, which last happened in 2019, but it was a stinking feeling for Ferrando who could have turned around a difficult season for everyone and reward the Bagan faithful after two years of struggles both in football and in real life too due to the pandemic. He went on to lose 3-1 to Hyderabad FC in the first leg of the semis and couldn’t recover the deficit after a second leg victory through a solitary Roy Krishna goal. The disappointing end to the league as well as the trophy came after the likes of Pritam-Prabir-Tiri-Subhashish, Hugo-Tangri-Kauko and Liston-Krishna-Williams-Manvir had helped establish the then highest undefeated streak of ISL, shared with FC Goa, from where Juan’s release clause was triggered by the MB management.

Juan Ferrando in his first season at Bagan (Courtesy: ISL Media)

Come April when the former Sheriff Tiraspol manager finally stepped out of the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport and stood staring towards the bustling metropolis of Kolkata. As he meandered through the melodious main roads and the spontaneous side streets of the City of Joy in his ride from the Airport in the far north east towards the marvellous historic Maidan at the heart of the town, he anticipated the passionate cries calling for the glory of the green and maroons ranging across the spectrum of the shrill yearning young, the shaky adventurous adolescent, the mature middle aged and the experienced elderly. Juan’s first *real* home game happened to be a 5-0 trotting of Sri Lankan side Blue Star in the AFC Cup group stage qualifiers. 
After a comfortable 3-1 win over Abahani Dhaka in the second qualifier, Bagan entered the Group stage as favourites. However, Vincenzo Alberto Annese’s Gokulam Kerala FC humbled the Mohun Brigade 4-2 in their first group game. However, after comfortable wins over Maziya and Basundhara Kings and other favourable results led the team to the Inter Zonal Semi Finals against Kuala Lumpur FC. However, by then Krishna Willams were let go and the replacements were yet to arrive, hence the young forward lineup of Ashique, Liston and Manvir couldn’t keep their nerves at the high stage as they missed a plethora of chances, and two late game goals by Lumpur ended MB’s Asian hopes at the same stage as the year prior, albeit in a less embarrassing but more frustrating fashion. Southern Bengal known for its sudden intense thunderstorms in April-May witnessed one of its strongest downpours during the match against Bashundhara as the match had to be paused for sometime. Juan after the match appreciated the passion of the fans who continued supporting from stands, drenched in rain. 

Juan with India Head Coach Igor Stimac before a friendly between MB and the National Team in 2022 (Courtesy: Mohun Bagan SG Media)

“It rained a lot. After the rain stopped when I checked I saw the supporters stayed to support us. I was feeling that this is our moment,” Juan reflected after the match. As Juan was settling into Kolkata, he was also experiencing the warm rays of passion and love piercing through the winds and thunder and cold shower straight into his heart. It was in the air, even after the AFC Cup exit, even after the Durand Cup Group Stage exit on same points with Rajasthan and Mumbai but an inferior head to head, that something special was coming. Thus, after a significant transfer window leading to exits of stalwarts Roy Krishna, David Williams, Prabir Das, Sandesh Jhingan, Amrinder Singh came the arrivals of Ashish Rai, Vishal Kaith, Ashique Kuruniyan, Brendan Hamill, Florentin Pogba, Hnamte and Dimitros Petratos. From two foreign strikers to (traditionally) zero was a move which turned many heads. But it all clicked on the 18th of March, 2023 when Pablo Perez could not keep his shot on target during the penalty shootout and a hysteric Vishal Kaith jumped the highest in the world that day after countless match winning saves which earned him his Golden Glove.

“I was sure our squad was good enough and we could do it despite all the circumstances. I don’t know how to express it, I just felt it that way and I told the management. It was Christmas time. We were all upset and looking to add some players to the squad because we only had three foreigners fully fit. It was then that it became clear that the need to incorporate these players had to be a priority,” Juan Ferrando to Khel Now.

If a book is ever written on the various phrases and proverbs used in football, Mohun Bagan’s ISL triumph will serve as the ideal illustrative example under the saying “Attack wins matches, Defense wins tournaments.” From McHugh’s interceptions and distribution, Deepak Tangri and Glan Martins’ blocks, the unpassable pairing of Pritam Hamill and later Pritam Damjanovic supported by Ashish Rai and Subhashish as full backs running up and down the wings, Boumous linking with Petratos supported by Liston and Manvir, it was a team who knew how to string effective attacks and then defend the scoreline gracefully by keeping possession and not let in space for even an ant to pass through. There were multiple setbacks in form of injuries to crucial players like Kauko, Boumous and Hamill, but it was Ferrando who didn’t make excuses and whine in front of the media and promptly adjusted the roles to bring the best out of what he had. Morale hit an low when NorthEast United got their first win of their season against MB which severed the Mariners’ Shield Hopes, after which he famously assured the management that they “could do it despite all the circumstances.”
Even into January there were multiple frustrating draws and defeats which put even the playoff qualification into question, but wins against Odisha and East Bengal helped the team finish 3rd. The two 0-0s against Hyderabad were arguably the two best goalless encounters the ISL has ever seen. Two penalty shootouts later, captain Pritam Kotal was there in front of the stage at which he lifted the trophy and proposed to his partner. You can’t have a better professional and personal day than that. But eras do come to an end, so did captain Kotal’s. Juan’s second transfer window oversaw the arrival of 2 star foreign forwards, reminiscent of his first season at Bagan. Along with the new star partnership of Cummings-Sadiku came Anwar Ali and Hector Yuste at defense and Sahal and Thapa at midfield. 

MB players lift the ISL 2022/23 Trophy (Courtesy: Mohun Bagan SG Media)

The 2023 Durand Cup quarter final against Mumbai was not only important in the fact that Mohun Bagan won over them the first time ever, but also it was the first time Juan Ferrando laid his formational and tactical plans for the season ahead. A bold grand 3-1-4-2 or 3-5-2 to be simpler. They didn’t just win, they won convincingly. Mumbai had no expectations for such an approach. Against Goa, even after going a goal down, the comeback was ensured and quite poetically they overcame their noisy neighbours, the Red and Golds, in the final to champion the Durand Cup. The never before seen approach of a dynamic fluid midfield combining with cheeky forwards ball confident defenders led to enchanting sights of captivating melodious harmonic football. Juan seemed to have realised a problem from last season where a solitary attacking mid Boumous was seen getting overcrowded and man marked on mutiple occasions, so he made a move of having two attacking mids which would create more breathing room and space as the opposition defense would have to focus on both Hugo and Sahal. 
With a dependable Thapa assuring effective linkage between the defense of Subhashish Hamill and Anwar towards the wing backs Liston and Manvir and the two AMs it was a unique approach in the ISL and led to a six game winning streak, a new record. But the Asian jinx yet again couldn’t be overcome as due to player rotations such as resting of Thapa for Glan Martins, injuries, crucial refereeing errors and often take-for-granted casual approach from players led to an embarrassing exit from the AFC Cup Group Stage at the hands of Odisha FC. It was the first ever scandal in the books of Ferrando at this Mohun Bagan stint, and the eventual shuffled in-coordinated, injured, suspended, tired and demotivated squad found Juan’s plans too grand to implement in their last three ISL clashes as MB registered back to back defeats in the National League for the first time since the 2003/04 season, that is 2 decades back. The fixture congestion meant that more time had to be put onto recovery and some big tactical changes to suit the needs of the cracked squad were difficult to implement as MB finished 2023 at the 5th place in the ISL. After a short holiday, Juan came back from Spain to Kolkata on the evening of 2nd Jan. There was a meeting between Club officials and Juan in the dead of the night and next morning another meeting resulted in the decision that Juan will not continue as the coach and Bagan’s latest hero from Spain bid his farewell from the Green and Maroon. 

Mohun Bagan players and coaches celebrate the Durand Victory (Courtesy: @JuanFerrandoF via X)

The journey of a football club to success, however they choose to define it, is an arduous one riddled with crests and troughs of happiness and sorrow, of elation and depression. The story of one coach in that journey can never be picture perfect, it will be an addition of contributions of many names on and off the field and it will be the supporters who would continue their tryst with the destiny of their beloved team. Coaches will never tick the boxes of everyone’s definition of right and wrong, and it was depressing to see online kangaroo courts and statements from popular outlets engaging in vile character assassination of Juan. Ferrando will move on with deep admiration and respect from the ones who identify that there can never be a single reason for a football club’s “failure”. A family man who doesn’t enjoy clubbing, lavish vacations, and finds social media stressful; Juan Ferrando’s insistence on finding bliss in the so called “boring” life is something one should deeply appreciate. After helping newly formed Greek club Volos FC gain back to back promotions to the top tier, Juan unfortunately had to leave the club due to a severe bacterial infection in his eye which nearly took away his vision. 
Imagine being completely blind for six months along with losing your job in a highly competitive market like football. Times like these make you so much appreciative of the most basic things of life. Kudos to FC Goa to give him a chance to get back in the game, being supportive at such a crucial stage of his life which was shadowed with doubt and cluelessness. He displayed his never-give-up spirit and impressed every Indian football enjoyer in his stint in India. Juan’s approach of integrating himself with the culture of the city or country he’s working, from his vivid description of the volatile Greeks to the stoic Moldovans, is refreshing when most coaches choose to live in a bubble and “just” do the job. Juan’s duality makes him an intriguing character, quiet yet vivacious, reserved yet animated, subtle yet effervescent. He would go crazy over a small foul on his player, and yet say “Now onto the Super Cup” just after championing the top most league of India. From the bottom of every Mariners’ hearts, Thank You for everything, Juan Ferrando.

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