For a 14-year old young footballer from a remote Manipur village playing in the inter-district tournament, even a remote possibilty of an Indian senior team debut in seven years would have been a daydream. But, for Salam Ranjan Singh, the towering professional who has recently signed for East Bengal after stints at Pune FC and Bengaluru FC, it may well turn out to be true next week when the Blue Tigers lock horns against Mauritius and St. Kitts & Nevis in two friendlies in Mumbai.
It would, though, be incorrect to infer that the defender has realized his full potential, given he has only had the opportunity to play small cameos in both his previous clubs so far. Salam who hails from Kha-Potessangbam in Manipur had his first break in 2010, when he caught the attention of Maniratnam, who later advised him to attend the trials for Pune FC's academy in 2011.
Though the defender made it to the Red Lizards' youth team easily, leaving home at an age of 15 and travelling to the opposite end of the country to pursue his footballing dreams were not easy. Salam decided to take the leap of faith and has not looked back since then.
At Pune FC he guided the academy team to two consecutive I-league U-20 trophies in 2012 and 2013, going undefeated in both campaigns. Along with players like Nikhil Kadam, Thongkhosiem Haokip and Lalrempuia Fanai, Salam was among the first batch of graduates to have come out from the stable of the Piramal Group-owned club.
Former Tata Football Academy coach Ranjan Choudhury was the tactician who guided Salam through his early days as a footballer.
"He was always quite a hard tackler and was very good when playing man to man." Choudhury remarked in a recent conversation with Goal.
Incidentally, Singh was awarded the 'Best-Disciplined Under-19 Player' award by the club at the end of the 2012–13 season.
"He was quite a jolly person and could mix with people very easily. He would never shout at his colleagues on or off the pitch. He always dreamt of playing for the national team, he is a role model for players coming from remote villages. What he has managed to achieve so far is great."
"Whenever he was free he used to sing and enjoy with the other players." Choudhury recalled.
Salam would soon break into the first team in the 2013-14 edition of the top-tier competition under head coach Mike Snoei. The centre-back, who can also play as right back impressed in his very first season with the club and made a total of 18 appearances alongside the likes of Calum Angus and Anas Edathodika, which included five in the AFC Cup.
In the 2014-15 I-league campaign though, he moved down the pecking order after Karim Bencherifa took charge, making only three appearances in the whole season.
Salam would subsequently be loaned out to Bengaluru FC the following year. The centre back showed glimpses of what he could do if given game time and did not dissapoint when he was part of the AFC cup squad that made it to the quarter-finals of the AFC Cup for the very first time in the history of the club.
Subsequently, the ISL franchise, NorthEast United FC decided to rope in the Manipuri defender for the 2016 ISL season. But Salam missed out on the first half of the season due to his commitments with Bengaluru FC for the AFC Cup.
In his final season with the Blues, Salam showed maturity in his style of play and dictated the game from the back at times when his more experienced team-mates Juanan and John Johnson seemed to struggle. If Ashley Westwood had inculcated grit in him, Roca helped him improve his passing from the back, something which the calm guy picked up with relative ease.
In that very season, Bengaluru FC became the first team from the country to reach the final of the AFC Cup and Salam played a crucial role in the outfit's journey to the summit clash. "This is the breakthrough season of my career and reaching that far in the continental championship was the pinnacle," he had opined after the end of the season.
During the summer break, Singh decided to join East Bengal, even though most of the top Indian players chose to join the ISL bandwagon. It will not be easy for him to break into the first XI though, with experienced defenders like Arnab Mondal and Gurwinder Singh also present in the Red and Golds' rosters.
His impressive performances for Bengaluru FC saw him being called up to the India U-23 squad which were to take part in the 2016 South Asian Games.
In 2017, Singh was a part of the Indian U-23 squad in the AFC U-23 Championship qualifiers held in Qatar, where they managed to pick up an impressive 3-1 win against Turkmenistan in their last tie.
Salam's progress has seen him being named in a 34-member probable squad for the upcoming AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 qualifiers and given Stephen Constantine's penchant of handing debuts to new players, it wouldn't be surprising to see Salam don the coveted Blue jersey next week.