Panchkula: With their first I-League title wrapped up, Minerva Punjab have shifted their focus on performing well at the upcoming Super Cup tournament involving clubs from both, the I-League and the Indian Super League.
"There are two football leagues in India and the Super Cup will decide who the champions of India are. I don't see much difference between the standard of the games in the I-League and the ISL. We have lower budgets but our performances match (those of) ISL teams," coach Khogen Singh said.
Minerva Punjab players celebrate their I-League title. Image courtesy: Twitter/@Minerva_AFC
His thoughts were echoed by owner Ranjit Bajaj, who said that being the champions of I-League would add to people's expectations from the club at the Super Cup. Minerva are also hoping to add their U-17 World Cup players, Anwar Ali, Jeakson Singh and Nongdamba Naorem to the squad for the Super Cup.
"Nong (Nongdamba), Jeakson and Anwar Ali will be coming back. They were sent on loan to the Indian Arrows till the end of the season and they want to play for Minerva in the Super Cup. However, they are being stopped by the All India Football Federation (AIFF). The loan period was till the end of the season so the AIFF can extend it by saying that the Super Cup is when the season ends," Bajaj said.
The Punjab side became only the second club from the state to win the national league after JCT, who won the inaugural National Football League title in 1996-97. Minerva started the season strongly and after 10 games, had 25 points out of a possible 30. However, they suffered a dip in form and only managed to win seven points in their next seven games to throw the title race wide open.
However, Khogen said he was unperturbed by their loss of form, rather choosing to focus on the hardwork and motivation his players put in to end up as champions.
"A football season is like a long journey and you have to suffer sometimes. It (football) is like life. Sometimes we performed badly, sometimes we were unlucky but we maintained our focus and that's why we are champions now."
Khogen also spoke about the amount of work done by his coaching staff to prepare for the must-win encounter.
"Mentally and physically we are tired (coming into the clash against Churchill). We didn't sleep for some nights leading up to this match as we were watching videos of our opponent's matches to try and find their weaknesses. My assistant and I stayed up till 2 am last night to watch Churchill's matches to understand what their playing style was," he said.
Minerva also had to deal with off-field issues including approaches made to the players by match-fixers, alleged attempts made to sign their players by rival clubs in the middle of the season and having to shift base from Ludhiana to Chandigarh towards the end of the campaign.
"It (match-fixing attempts) did not affect the team. We were focusing on becoming champions. I told my players to keep focus on being champions and not to be affected by such things.
"There were also a lot of mind games employed by others. In the middle of the season, we roped in a psychologist to help us out.
"See, if you are a good runner, the person behind will always try to talk you down. But I don't bother about him because I want to achieve my targets. What I told my players is 'You can't let your concentration get affected by this (off field distractions) because if that happens, you won't succeed.'"
Chencho Gyeltshen has been Minerva's standout player this season with his 13 goals and assists. He also played a key role in the build-up to Minerva's solitary goal against Churchill, pouncing on a defensive error by the Goan side to start a move which led to William Opaku's goal. Khogen was pleased with the performances of his forwards Chencho, William and Girik Khosla and said that they were instrumental in disrupting Churchill's playing style.
"We had studied Churchill's game and we knew that they would play long balls so we had three forwards to press their defenders and it worked. Chencho has been the best player not only for us, but also in the league this season," he said.
The former Air India player also hailed the performances of centre back Sukhdev Singh, branding him the 'backbone' of his side.
"Sukhdev has been the best Indian player for us this season. Since the start, he has been the backbone of our team. He has been the most consistent player for us this season. Some players had their highs and lows but Sukhi was consistently good," Khogen said.
The Manipuri had a long playing career but never managed to win the league and was naturally thrilled to win it as a coach. "It's a very different feeling. When I played for Air India, I never got the taste of being a champion. This is the first time that I am the champion and I don't know how to express my feelings."