February 24, 2023. The last game of the Indian Super League campaign for the senior team; and the beginning of the Stafford Challenge Cup campaign for the Chennaiyin FC reserve team.
Thirty years later the Karnataka State Football Association had decided to revive South India’s oldest recognized football tournament! The Stafford Challenge Cup was established in 1938 and then abolished in 1993. But now it was set to kick off in Bengaluru once again and the Chennaiyin FC reserve team was part of it.
Three days prior to the tournament, Senthamil and goalkeeper Mohan Raj withdrew from senior team training to join the rest of the squad in Bengaluru with the former taking on the captain’s armband for the tournament. Givson Singh, Bikash Yumnam, Devansh Dabas and Sajal Bag were all named in the squad as well but would join the lads after their first game; potentially to be involved yet in the last game of the ISL campaign. Bikash and Devansh were unused subs against NorthEast United FC while Sajal came on to score a stoppage time winner in a thrilling 4-3 encounter.
The squad also included the likes of Joseph Lalvenhima, Chris White, Niketh N, Rahul Manjula and Solai Malai who had impressed in a Chennaiyin FC shirt in the 2022 edition of Reliance Foundation Developmental League.
Drawn in Group D, Chennaiyin FC began their campaign against ARA FC with a solitary goal from the skipper enough to take full points. In the second game, Chennaiyin FC started brightly against Bengaluru-based Kickstart FC with goals from Senthamil and Givson, but Chennaiyin FC walked away with only one point after the opposition scored two second half goals. With four points from two games Chennaiyin FC faced an uphill task to top the group and move on to the knockout stages. Topping the group was a mandate to progress.
With Kickstart FC on equal points and a similar goal difference, Chennaiyin FC had to better their result against Kerala United FC. Twenty minutes in, Joseph scored the opener to settle some early nerves. By half time Chennaiyin FC were up by three thanks to an own goal and a Niketh header. The second half saw a flurry of goals – including a Senthamil brace as Givson, Solai, Chris and Rahul all got on the scoresheet as well. A 9-0 win was more than enough to ensure a semifinal spot for the boys.
April 3 was semifinal day as the boys prepared to face Delhi FC at the Bangalore Football Stadium. Givson drew first blood with his second free-kick goal of the tournament and Sajal put Chennaiyin FC two to the good with a wonder goal seconds before the half time whistle blew. However, history repeated itself, with two second half goals from the opposition saw the teams level at the full time whistle again. But this time, Chennaiyin FC moved onto penalties. Givson took the first one but the keeper pushed his effort onto the crossbar and out. Not the way you would like to start a penalty shootout. However, Devansh made two successive saves to put Chennaiyin FC in the lead, before Chris slotted his penalty past the keeper to book their place in the final.
Bengaluru United in the final on April 6. Devansh was ruled out due to illness. However, the goalkeeping gloves were to be filled by the capable hands of Mohan Raj. In the 31st minute Chennaiyin FC fell behind when the opposition scored directly from a free kick on the edge of the box. Early on in the second half, the opposition won a penalty but Mohan got low to push the ball onto the post and keep Chennaiyin FC in the game. In the 71st minute Sooraj found Senthamil in space who brought down the ball with his chest, beat his man and slotted the ball past the keeper to find the equaliser! As the game looked destined to go to penalties once again; Chennaiyin FC fell short right at the end once again with the opposition scoring a stoppage time winner to take home the trophy.
In the end, it was a heartbreaking end to an inspiring campaign. There are lots of positives to look forward to. Senthamil finished as the second highest goalscorer of the tournament with five goals in five games. Givson ended the tournament with three goals and two assists. Solai and Niketh impressed defensively. This isn’t the end for this bunch who quickly shift focus onto the upcoming editions of the Reliance Foundation Developmental League and Second Division League.