On August 5, the Indian government revoked the special status accorded to the state of Jammu & Kashmir in its constitution and thereafter, created two new union territories namely Jammu & Kashmir (J & K) and Ladakh. Amidst fears of unrest, the valley was kept under strict vigil with a lockdown in place.
This forced Real Kashmir FC to be on the road for over two months preparing for the 2019-20 I-League season. Coincidentally, on that very day, the Real Kashmir players had their flight to Kolkata to take part in the Durand Cup. Two days later, without any training, they beat Chennai City to register a place in the semi-finals of one of the oldest and prestigious tournaments of the country.
After bowing out to Mohun Bagan in the Durand, they played friendlies in Jamshedpur, Kochi, and Goa, and even held a training camp in Navi Mumbai before heading back to Kashmir in mid-October. But the real challenge was to host their home matches in Srinagar as tensions in the region continued to simmer.
Yet, the team owner, Sandeep Chattoo, remained confident that his Snow Leopards will not move out of their den to play the home matches. He only sought more time from the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and requested them to not keep any matches in Srinagar till December 15. The federation accepted the proposal and scheduled their first home match on December 26, 2019, against then-reigning champions Chennai City.
And the 'unreal fans' did not disappoint as more than 6000 supporters turned up for the game to witness their team defeat Chennai 2-1 with poster boy Danish Farooq on the scoresheet.
"It was more than an impossible task (to host matches in Srinagar). Circumstances were very difficult, but we had not given up hope. Even the day before our first match there were restrictions which prevented people from gathering in a place. We had to bring in a lot of permissions, co-ordinate with local police, the intelligence, and the responsibility on our shoulders was enormous.
"The administration was very co-operative but they had given permission to bring only 1500 spectators. Whereas, all our matches remain chock-a-block whenever the team takes the field. On the first matchday, there were more than 5000 people outside the stadium and the police had no choice (but to let them in)," stated Chattoo to Goal, reminiscing the complications of the task at hand.
Their next match was against Mohun Bagan, a team that remains widely followed in the valley as it was Bagan that made local boy Majeed Kakroo one of the highest-paid footballers in 1979 offering him Rs 60,000 per month.
We didn’t win the match today but we won the hearts of 11000 fans who came to watch RKFC play Mohan Bagan, inspite of biting cold in TRC today⚽️⚽️⚽️⚽️......love you....RKFC....♥️.....Thanks for putting in your best always.... pic.twitter.com/SftkeYrruu— Sandeep Chattoo (@sunny78654) January 6, 2020
Expectedly, the attendance surged to 11,521 and yet the show went on smoothly.
"It is the best crowd in the country. I have complete belief in the fans and we have nothing to do with politics. They love football and this is our way of telling the world what Kashmir is all about. Everybody entering the stadium had to bring his residential proof and ID. Everyone believes that Real Kashmir is his or her own club," asserted Chattoo.
In the previous campaign, the Kashmiri businessman challenged the odds and turned them in his favour through sheer will and determination to uphold the essence of the club by playing in Srinagar. But the Coronavirus pandemic is a dampener which has forced the AIFF to possibly choose a centralised venue for the next edition of I-League.
"We are geared for any eventuality. You will miss your home advantage but during this kind of a pandemic, there is nothing you can do about it. Nevertheless, we have already started our preparations for the next season. We are in constant touch with David (Robertson), Mason (Robertson), and our local players.ISL (Indian Super League) is supposed to start in November. So we are expecting that I-League should start somewhere in December.
"Last year we had a very long pre-season of four months. This time we do not want to do the same thing. So once we get to know when the league will start, two or two and a half months before the team will assemble," commented Chhattoo briefing about the plans for next season.
The next campaign will definitely test the players to their hilt both mentally and physically as they would have to play all the matches away from home and adaptability will be key to success. Moreover, they would feel the absence of their vociferous fans which acted as the 12th man. But the club have always braved adversities and have been a tough nut to crack on the field.
Now it remains to be seen whether they can remain true to their characteristics even in the 'new normal' under the leadership of Chattoo, off-the-pitch, and coach Robertson, on-the-pitch.