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Sanjoy Sen took charge of Mohun Bagan mid-season, only a fortnight before the Federation Cup. Five months down the line, Bagan are the national champions. Without a trophy for the last five years and on a shoestring budget following the sponsorship chaos, the Kolkata club had been staring at an uncertain future. Sen believes the I-League triumph would usher in a revival, not only for Bagan but for Bengal football as a whole. Excerpts:
How did the club’s transformation take place?
I was privileged to have an excellent group of boys. The Federation Cup was my introduction period with the team. The players gave me the belief that we could go on and win the I-League. Starting well was very important. Bagan had been notoriously slow off the blocks for the last few years. To win the I-League, we had to change that. We won the first game and then beat Salgaocar. After that we were up and running.
The team stuttered a bit at the business end of the tournament.
It was bound to happen in a marathon league. Yes, we lost three matches but we never fell off the perch (Bagan lost the top spot on the table only for one round). We dominated this league. That phase was a minor blip but the boys showed character.
Were you a little twitchy with Bangalore FC leading by a goal and only four minutes of the regulation time remaining?
My team-talk at half-time was a one-liner. It takes only 60 seconds to score (build-up) a goal, that’s what I told my boys. With 86 minutes on the clock, I became a little nervous. But I kept on repeating those words to my players. Their never-say-die attitude gave us the trophy.
Money has been a problem for the club recently. How did you keep the motivation going?
It was indeed a difficult period. Football is their livelihood and they had a legitimate grievance. I described the whole situation; the reason for the funds crunch and I also told them that the issue would be sorted out soon. The boys responded in a very positive manner.
Could this be the turning point for Bagan?
Hope, this proves to be the turning point for Bengal football. Bengal teams should have continued to set the benchmark in Indian football, but we had been on a terminal decline. Both Bagan and East Bengal had won their last National League titles many, many moons ago. Hope, this will arrest the slide and usher in a revival.
Your first coaching job with a big club and you’ve won the I-League title and best coach award.
Yes, this is my biggest achievement so far. I did fairly well as a coach for United Sports. I guided Mohammedan Sporting to the I-League first division. But this was a different challenge. To be in charge of Bagan is a huge honour and I always told myself I shouldn’t let down our millions of fans. Credit goes to the players. They took us to glory. They’re the real heroes. Personally, I want to dedicate this to my wife and son, and our wonderful fans.
Who’s your man of the tournament?
This has been a collective effort. Every individual contributed. I don’t want to single out a player. But Bello Rasaq has been inspirational. Even after 14 years in Indian football he walked away with the best defender award. He didn’t miss a single game. His commitment level and leadership qualities were exemplary. Rasaq is my John Terry.
Bagan would be playing the AFC Cup next season. You need to start early.
Yes, I will sit with the officials in a day or two and will chalk out plans for the next season. AFC Cup is very important, especially now that we no longer have the Federation Cup. We don’t want to go there as also-rans…