It is a Sunday. January 10. Sun has managed to make its appearance despite winter at its peak. Kashmirs only synthetic turf-TRC ground, Srinagar is choc-bloc. Lots of bums have occupied newly built seats. Crowds are at their boisterous best. You need an Einstein to guess who they are supporting. They are cheering for only one team.
Lone Star Kashmir Football Club (LSKFC), pitted against the touring Dempo Sports Goa, have given Football a much needed kick that has seen the fans embrace the sport wholeheartedly. For some, it was like football was back to the days of yore: 70s and 80s-when Srinagar was all about the sport and loyalties.
Every successful tackle from the hosts got the crowd going. Every dribble was cheered. Every missed opportunity had them sigh oohs and aahs. The whole of the TRC erupted in joy when Atinder Mani found the net that proved to the decisive goal. LSKFC had arrived. For a team just two years into the arena to beat soccer giants Dempo Sports Goa on a home turf was the tonic LSKFC needed for making their presence felt.
And, fans were living every moment of it, for they had finally got a team to support playing a top flight football.
LSKFC has taken on a journey that has seen them rewrite football history of the state. First club to have been professionally managed, LSKFC is the first team from the Valley to compete in the I-League- one of the major tourneys in Indian domestic circuit.
They didnt stop the show, making the AIFF-custodians of the sport in India- to allot their home fixtures to TRC Ground Srinagar. Crowd didnt disappoint, turning up to a capacity attendance for all the games. Every game has added to LSKFCs fan base.
LSKFCs main strength is their managerial team with their owner Iftikhar Hussain Lone resorting to take everyone along approach which has been responded with a stellar show by the players on the field.
Lone has had to think twice before investing in the football. Having spent prime years of his youth in Middle East, Lone returned back to the valley keen to do something for his native place. His first target was cricket, but didnt pursue it after realizing a horde of corporate honchos was already in the mix.
Lone opted for Football: that is where he found peace and opportunity. Crickets loss proved to be Kashmir Footballs biggest goal though. He isnt going anywhere. All he wants the sport to grow in all of the state.
I am happy that I invested in football. There is lot of talent in this part of the world and I will try my best to a bit for the growth of the sport, Lone told Kashmir Observer.
Lones has played the game at an amateurish level which is helping the cause.
I have played the game during my school and college days. Even during my days in Middle East I would play amateurely. When I returned back to Kashmir, I realised that lot was needed to growth of the game, Lone said.
No sooner Lone decided to go for football; he found an able advisor in Nazir Ahmad Khan-ace footballer of yesteryears. Khan provided the football knowledge while Lone did the hard yards to do the paperwork. The fruit was something they had soccer fans delirious: LSKFC.
We discussed how we can help the sport grow in the state and it was decided we needed a professional club here. With LSKFC not only has footballers been benefited, but we have managed to give fans to watch some top quality. Over the last couple of years, LSKFC has become a brand name and we are happy it has helped culture of football in the valley, said Lone.
LSKFC roped in Hilal Rasool Parray as a coach, and as the things progressed more and more players from the state were drafted in.
LSKFCs maiden participation in State Championship 2014 saw them finish as runner ups, before making a historic jump: to field a U-19 team in the I-League. It didnt stop there as the Kashmir based club made an entry in the second division of the I-League.
It was really a proud moment for all of us: all of Kashmir, all of the J&K. We were part of the history, becoming the first team ever from the state to take part in the I-League. We didnt field many players from Kashmir in the 2014-15 season, but did okay in our maiden appearance to announce our arrival at a big stage, he said.
Things went better and better for the LSKFC, getting more and more players from the Valley to swell its fan base.
Now we have almost all the members from the J&K. We are happy how things have shaped up thus far. We have been embraced warmly by the fans and it was evident by the fact all three games at TRC Ground this season (2015-16) saw ground filled to its capacity. The buzz around these matches was amazing and the support was so encouraging. It meant we are doing something right and I hope we are able to continue with that, he said.
We decided to not to rope in any foreign player this season and concentrated on local talent pool and some players from various Indian states, he said.
LSKFC made it to the second round this season before shown the exit door. Khan feels they were hard done by some local players who left the club midway on insistence of rival clubs.
Our success has not been taken well by some of our rivals here. We would made it further this season, but some of the club owners lured our players to their teams which left us high and dry in the middle of the season, he said.
He isnt finished, though. He means business and wants to use this as stepping stone for the greater things.
We are hard done by this bit it wont stop us from doing our work. We know the process has just started. Natural turfs need to be maintained. We need to get best physios and trainers for the side so that players are ultra fit to meet the demands of the modern sport. We are mulling to set up an academy and train at grassroot levels, Lone said.
Lone says his focus is now on working at the grassroot level. We have already made U-14 and U-16 teams and hope to give the youngsters a platform to showcase their skills, he said.
LSKFC are making serious advances in the J&K football circles, but will they sustain it remains a big question.
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