As the 22 players gathered around him after the 1-0 win over Churchill Brothers at Tau Devi Lal Stadium, Minerva Punjab FC owner Ranjit Bajaj headed towards 68-year-old Sukhwinder Singh, the manager of JCT, the last North Indian club to win the I- League title in 1996-97. Incidentally, that was the maiden season of the I-League.
“It feels great to win the title finally. After 22 years, we have brought the title to Punjab. What JCT did was path-breaking and it always inspired us. Sukhwinder sir congratulated me and told me it’s a huge step in Indian football. We have done the double this year, becoming the only club to win the junior as well senior I-League. One does not always need stars to win the title,” said an emotional Bajaj after the match.
The team had five wins in the first seven games this season and the trio of Bhutanese Chencho Gyeltshen and Ghana’s Willaim Opoku and Eric Dano played crucial roles. With youngsters like Abhishek Ambedkar managing the mid-field with control and goal-keeper Rakshit Dagar saving some crucial points for the outfit, Minerva looked on course to be favourites at the business end.
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While the team had 25 points after 10 games in the league, the Punjab outfit could not take full advantage of home matches in the later stages. Coming into Thursday’s game, Minerva had won five matches and drawn one match at home with two losses — against East Bengal and Gokulam Kerala.
The loss against Gokulam Kerala, earlier this month, saw the team management approach 2008 Olympics gold medallist Abhinav Bindra’s mental trainer Dr Amit Bhatacharjee. The players attended training sessions under the mental trainer.
“Minerva Punjab FC got in touch with me last month and they wanted me to train the team. Previously I had worked with East Bengal in 2009-2010 and it was a big challenge to train a group. We divided the training in three batches and the players were taught how to control their breathing,” said Bhatacharjee.