Calcutta: Kingfisher East Bengal would only rue the fact they lost an opportunity of being all over a McDowell Mohun Bagan side, cut to size with the exit of two of their mainstays, at the Salt Lake Stadium, here, on Sunday.
The red-and-gold brigade led through Harmanjot Singh Khabra’s 43rd minute strike in this I-League encounter and could well have reaped further dividends had their arch-rivals been back in the field after interval instead of shying away from it, citing players’ safety and security concerns.
Unfortunately, for the crowd that had gathered in large numbers — and of course, for East Bengal — the match was abandoned with a stringent penalty in store for Bagan, who could be barred for the remainder of this I-League and for the next two editions as well.
With goal-poacher Okolie Odafe given marching orders towards the end of the first session for his gestures and verbal abuse to referee Vishnu Chauhan, Syed Rahim Nabi was hit on the side of his right eye by a stone hurled from a gallery, consisting of none other than Bagan fans.
The situation then flared up as match came to a halt for around 13 minutes with police resorting to lathi-charge in an effort to restore normalcy. Action, though, had resumed for a minute or so before referee Chauhan blew the half-time whistle.
But towards the end of the break, news broke out that Mohun Bagan would not take the field for fear of safety with the club football secretary Uttam Saha handing over the official letter to match commissioner Gulab Chauhan at 3.25 pm.
Earlier, the much-awaited contest didn’t quite live up to its ‘Derby’ status, as poor ball-control and miss-passes looked to be the main contents of the game. Both teams appeared shoddy, although East Bengal had more of goal-mouth attacks that were undone as striker Edeh Chidi hardly got any support up front.
An opportunity came East Bengal’s way after the half-hour mark, but Bagan custodian Arindam Bhattacharya parried over the crossbar an Uga Okpara header, which was set up nicely by Naoba Singh, off Mehtab Hossain’s flag-kick.
Coach Trevor James Morgan’s men finally had their way when Khabra came up with a wonderful header, off Mehtab’s freekick, to find the back of the net with Bhattacharya beaten all ends up.
But East Bengal’s last laugh couldn’t be possible, as their rivals had other ideas in mind.
“I’ve got both professional and personal feelings. I’ll say only the professional ones. This kind of situation is a first for me that something (match getting abandoned) of this sort has happened,” Morgan retorted.
“I’ve seen pots, bricks and coins thrown by fans at my players. All I can say is that I really feel sorry for the 1,00,000 people that had assembled at the ground,” he lamented.
Morgan, though, had no complaints whatsoever on refereeing. “I believe all the decisions that the referee took were correct,” he made it clear.
Although his men were on the ascendancy, Morgan feels that the performance of the team till Khabra’s conversion didn’t quite live up to expectations. “We were a little scrappy even though the goal was a brilliant one from Khabra. But that said, we weren’t too dangerous during set-pieces as we’ve been in our previous matches.”
On the other hand, Karim Bencharifa explained the reason behind his players not returning to the field after interval.
“Odafe didn’t touch the ball at all. I trust all my players. At halftime, we decided not to play any further because things could well have gone worse. Our priority at that stage was the safety of players,” the Bagan coach categorically mentioned.
East Bengal: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Naoba Singh, Uga Okpara, Arnab Mondal, Saumik Dey, Harmanjot Singh Khabra, Mehtab Hussain, Penn Orji, Ishfaq Ahmed, Edeh Chidi, Manandeep Singh
Mohun Bagan: Arindam Bhattacharya, Aiborlang Khongjee, Nirmal Chetri, Mehrajuddin Wadoo, Biswajit Saha, Syed Rahim Nabi (Snehasis Chakravarty 45+1 minute), Rakesh Masih, Denson Devadas, Jewel Raja, Stanley, Okolie Odafe.
Referee: Vishnu Chauhan