Bangladesh Premier League champions Sheikh Russel KC yesterday returned home after their brilliant result in the AFC President's Cup in Sri Lanka that earned them a slice of football history as the first club from Bangladesh to qualify for the final round of Asia's third-tier club competition.
Officials from the Bangladesh Football Federation (BFF) and Sheikh Russel received the players with flowers at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport.
Since teams like Abahani failed to qualify for the finals of the AFC President's Cup in their five attempts, Sheikh Russel's final berth on their debut appearance was a pleasantly surprising one.
Last season's treble winners, now depleted, are currently wallowing in their mid-table position in the ongoing 10-team professional football league after failing to defend two tournament titles earlier in the season. They received another jolt when a new coach was appointed just two weeks before the President's Cup but the boys seemingly shrugged off all odds to turn the table around by emerging group champions.
“Everyone is aware of the team's results in the domestic competition and us players considered the AFC President's Cup as our last opportunity to give something back to the club. The determination, commitment, unity and intent to achieve something were the secrets behind our success,” said striker Mithun Chowdhury, who struck four goals out of Sheikh Russel's total of nine in the last two matches.
“Playing a goalless draw against Khan Research Laboratory FC, which consisted seven to eight Pakistani national players, gave us a boost and allowed us to excel in the next two matches,” said national striker Mithun. “Striking early goals against Sri Lanka Air Force and Ugyen Academy helped us notch up big-margin wins.”
Mithun however believes the competitiveness in the domestic competitions and the improvement of individual players had an impact on the AFC President's Club performance .
“To tell the truth, the quality of our footballers is better than the footballers of Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bhutan. Besides, the regular hosting of domestic competitions has been improving the individual players and it had an impact on our games in Sri Lanka,” asserted Mithun, adding that the brilliant result of Sheikh Jamal DC in the IFA Shield in India also inspired them to perform better for the nation.
Newly-appointed Montenegrin coach Dragan Djukanovic was also ecstatic after winning the group championship on his first assignment.
“Before the tournament, we had injury problems that limited our desires but then we fought and got the best result. Everybody is now proud of the achievement and I want to thank the boys, the support staff as well as the management,” said Dragan.
The coach said that Sheikh Russel have almost no chance of winning the league title as Sheikh Jamal have stolen an 11-point march, but he wants his boys to keep the winning momentum in the rest of the league matches.