Newcomers Kenkre FC put Mumbai back on the I-League map

The Cooperage Ground has been synonymous with Mumbai football. Steeped in history and located in the heart of the city, it was the venue that gave wings to children who dreamt of playing football and had the old-timers hooked. The city’s prominent clubs—from Mahindra United to Air India to Mumbai FC—plying in the I-League, then the country’s top-tier league, would draw the Cooperage faithful in numbers.

Silence has engulfed the Cooperage in the past few years as Mumbai yearned for an I-League team to revive its pulse (Mumbai City FC plays its Indian Super League games at the Mumbai Football Arena).

Those scenes could return soon, courtesy Kenkre Football Club.

The club will play in the 2021-22 season which begins on Sunday. It is the first time since 2017 that the now second-tier competition will have a Mumbai team. Kenkre FC is among three new teams in the 13-club competition. The others are the Visakhapatnam-based Sreenidi Deccan FC and Rajasthan United FC. Though this season will be played in a bio-bubble in Kolkata, Kenkre FC’s breakthrough has given a fillip to Mumbai football as well as raise hopes of I-League action taking place at the iconic ground from next season.

“It’s the most exciting part of it,” Joshua Lewis, co-founder and CEO of the club, said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to see the fans and I-League football back at Cooperage.”

Lewis has been the driving force behind the small club’s rise to the upper echelons of Indian football sans corporate backing since it came into being in 2000 under the guidance of former national footballer Adib Kenkre, its first coach after whom the club is named. They needed luck after falling short six times since entering the second division in 2008. Kenkre FC ended second in the I-League qualifiers in October but got a last-minute call-up after Chennai City FC were barred.

“This kind of opportunity makes you feel happy,” Lewis said. “There have been days when the struggle has been really bad. But you have to keep going.”

Kenkre FC has in the last 21 years. The club was an ideation by a bunch of youngsters fresh off school and their Don Bosco coach Kenkre, who assembled a handful of enthusiastic players and practiced in a corner of Shivaji Park. “A lot of talented players were going astray with no opportunities to play football. So Kenkre sir said, “let’s get the talent together”. Finding a private ground was tough, so we trained at Shivaji Park,” Lewis recalled.

Adversity cultivated togetherness. A few players came from humble background, while some scrambled to turn up after part-time jobs. The players who had the resources contributed 100 per month to arrange for train passes and post-training refreshments.

In 2000, the club registered for the local MDFA league, and consistently earned promotion to higher divisions. As the team rose, so did the expenses. Lewis realised mere contributions from within and the odd helping hand from outside wouldn’t suffice. So he went to Kenkre with the proposal of a revenue model that became the engine behind the club’s growth.

“I said rather than asking money from parents as donation, let’s start coaching kids. We had 8-10 kids who we would coach on weekends for 500 per month. Over a period of time, we had around 70-80 kids training with us,” Lewis said.

Kenkre FC now has eight academies across the city with close to 1,000 kids enrolled before the pandemic. In the I-League squad, the club has about 10 players who have graduated from its academies’ youth system and 16 from elsewhere in Maharashtra.

“At Kenkre, it has always been about the youth and grassroots and encouraging players from the city and state,” head coach Akhil Kothari, an academy product himself, said. “We have a strong focus on our academy system.”

Striker Yash Mhatre is a prime example. “I’ve been with the club since the youth academy and U-19 days. It’s a dream come true for everyone associated with Kenkre FC to be in the I-League,” he said.

Sustainability challenge

The challenge now is to remain there. Many city clubs—Mahindra United, Mumbai Tigers, Mumbai FC, to name a few—fizzled out. Lewis puts the expenses to run a competitive I-League team at Rs1-1.5 crore. That will be a stretch this season due to the short notice, but Lewis believes raising the finances shouldn’t be daunting once things settle down.

Apart from being on the lookout for corporate partners and sponsors, Lewis has faith in Kenkre FC’s club-driven model—comprising academies, youth teams, women’s teams, etc—to provide a solid structure for a sustainable run. Not just in the I-League but in the long haul that includes ISL ambition.

“Unless you have a big corporate backup, it’s a struggle,” Lewis said. “But it’s important for a club to be multi-dimensional; it cannot just run on a team and expect to get money from it. You have to do things surrounding it for there to have value to the club. We want to expand our revenue streams and build on our foundation so that we continue developing rather than just have the one burst.”

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