Minerva Punjab FC scripted the most unlikely of fairy tales as they clinched their first ever I-League title on Thursday.
Founded in 2005, the Punjab based club was fighting for the wooden spoon in the previous year and finished 9th, escaping relegation only because they were one of the new entrants and were exempted from the drop.
“Our aim was to get into the top 4. We had good 2-3 months of pre-season and were confident of doing well but winning the title was not our aim when we started, we started hoping for it only after the first seven-eight games,” says coach Khogen Singh, who joined the club in July 2017.
One of the key reasons behind the club's astonishing achievement has been the smart recruitment of players, especially the foreign players who were integral to the team.
Star of the show was Bhutanese Chencho Gyeltshen who finished with seven goals and was the top scorer for the club. Ivorian defender Eric Dano and holding midfielder Kassim Aidara too were integral, playing 17 games each.
“We wanted hard working players and we developed our game style with time,” says Khogen, who went in with a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-1-4-1 tactic throughout the season, keeping things tight in the middle and using pace on the counter attack to his team’s benefit.
William Opoku, who scored the winning goal against Churchill Brothers which eventually clinched the title, said that hard work and belief were the key ingredients in the team’s title run.
“We worked extra hard in training and were fighting for everything. There was no such pressure as we believed in ourselves. I am now looking forward to the Super Cup,” adds the Ghanian, who moved to Minerva from Middlesborough.
It was a roller coaster journey with the team having to face its share of lows throughout the season and at one stage it did look as if they might just crumble under pressure. The team's owner Ranjit Bajaj, in January, took to social media to say that his players were approached by bookies.
The club also had to change their home ground midway through the season, shifting base from Ludhiana to Panchkula and it did seem as if the off field distractions would ultimately derail the season.
“Our team was inexperienced so I told my players to concentrate on the performance, it was important to remain calm in our minds and the results would follow,” says Khogen.
“As far as match fixing was concerned, I just asked my players one simple thing, whether they want to be known as champions or not, I told them to forget all these distractions and just focus on their games,” adds the Manipuri.
‘Shillong-East Bengal Game Made Us Believe’
Minerva started the season with a five match unbeaten run and at one stage it seemed they would run away with the title, but a dip in form midway and in the latter half saw the team crumble, allowing the rivals catch up.
It did look like that new comers Neroca or experienced Bengal clubs – East Bengal and Mohun Bagan – might just walk away with the title.
“The game between East Bengal and Shillong Lajong (which ended 2-2) made us really believe in ourselves and we felt we could win the title,” says Khogen Singh.
The game played in the second last round of the league proved to be pivotal as East Bengal dropped crucial points in a game they were expected to win.
‘Will Boost Football in the North’
What the title triumph has also done is given North India its first championship after 22 years, JCT being the last club from the region which lifted the trophy.
“This will be a big boost, we saw what happened with Aizawl last year. Their title victory helped the game in North East. Now, the players and coaches in this part will know that they have something to look forward to. This will serve as a big inspiration,” says Khogen, signing off.