Siliguri: The Kingfisher East Bengal camp, on the eve of the Federation Cup final against Dempo, looked very relaxed. At least on the surface. If Sanju Pradhan was having a banter with Alvito D'Cunha, who just flew down from Calcutta, Seiminlen Doungel was busy marvelling at his icon Sunil Chetri's new postings from Portugal on his newly-bought tablet. And oblivious of whatever happening around him, Naoba Singh was busy fiddling with his mobile.
But scratch the surface and ask some questions, the players get conscious about the fact there is a big match on Sunday evening at the Kanchenjungha Stadium.
"Yes it is a big match," Sanju said at the team hotel, on Saturday evening. "There is tension, the players know the importance of this match. The pressure is on us. The crowd will be expecting us to win the Cup," the captain said.
"We have silenced everyone after beating Churchill Brothers in the semi-final. Look, the way the vernacular dailies went after us after the Kalighat MS match was very unfortunate… Negative criticism can be depressing. But then it can spur you on, too. After the Kalighat match, we were desperate to prove a point. I think the right way to answer them is to prove yourself on the field," Sanju said.
This proving-yourself-on-the-field mentality has been drilled into the players' system by none other than coach Trevor James Morgan. For him, winning a championship means more than winning a match.
"Winning is very important," he said. According to Morgan, it's not possible to win every match playing beautiful football. So, he doesn't mind slugging it out at times to bring home three points.
East Bengal, on Sunday, will be missing Uga Okpara and Gurwinder Singh in the heart of the defence. Raju Gaekwad and Arnab Mondal are the likely replacements. It should concern Morgan even though, true to his style, he did not give much importance to who would not be there.
"Ever since he came here in 2010, I have never seen him cribbing about the players he was missing due to suspensions or injuries," Mehtab Hossain, whose professional life changed for the better post 2010, said.
It's not that Morgan's opposite number, the much respected and highly successful Armando Colaco complains about card problems and injuries. His idea of football, which has seen Dempo emerging as the most successful club in recent history has been very simple. Nurture the talent, give them confidence and help them to soar. So you still see the likes of Clifford Miranda, Climax Lawrence, Mahesh Gawli and Peter Carvalho swearing by his name.
Ask Beto, now with Churchill Brothers or Prayag United's Ranty Martins, the impact Armando had on them during their halcyon days with Dempo. "A coach's job is a difficult job. You have to be a father figure… Sometimes you have to be like a friend," Armando said.
"I am a big fan of Morgan. The way he has transformed this East Bengal side is truly remarkable."
So will it be a clash of two coaches? "Obviously. It will be a tactical battle. Whichever team manage to execute their coach's tactics well will have the final laugh," he said.
Dempo's midfield has been extraordinary in this tournament. Clifford has been in great form and Climax, as usual, was no-nonsense at the centre of the park. And then there is Koko Sakibo upfront who can pose a few problems for the inexperienced East Bengal defence. New signing Ryuji Sueoka is still doubtful for the match.
"I am not sure. I will take a call tomorrow. But I must say it is completely the player's call. If he thinks he is ready to play, then the coach will always go by what the player thinks," Armando said. He is spot on.
So who will be taking home the Federation Cup? Will it be Dempo, who last won in 2004 when Cristiano Junior had a fatal collision with Subrata Paul in the final? Or it will be the red-and-gold brigade after a one-year hiatus?
Kanchenjungha Stadium though has been a happy hunting ground for East Bengal. In 1988, one Chima Okerie single-handedly won a tournament for the red and gold brigade here in Siliguri. It's still part of folklore here. Such was the impact that one soft-drink company immediately signed Chima as their "face." Those days that was a real big deal. Twenty-four years later, another Nigerian Edeh Chidi has a chance to do something similar. He is amongst goals and has that swagger of a champion. East Bengal fans will really like Chidi to go bang bang…
Match starts: 6:30pm