A lot of credit for Malabar's tale of football and its heroes has to go to Malabar Special Police (MSP) department. The special unit of Kerala Police is a conglomeration of several entities in one but the people in the region know them for consistently churning out talented footballers.
The latest example of such a talent is FC Pune City's Ashique Kuruniyan who recently made his debut for the Indian national team. The Malappuram-born youngster honed his skills at the MSP Highest Secondary School (MSP HSS) before joining the now-defunct Pune FC's junior team.
With a plan to take their productivity to the next level, MSP Football Academy was launched in September. 2017. With the trio of IM Vijayan, former Indian national team player Sharafali and former Kerala team captain Kurikesh Mathew at the helm of affairs, the promising academy sent out teams for the U-13, U-15 and U-18 age category competitions of I-League's 2017-18 season.
"MSP products, around 10 of them, are playing at I-League clubs. It is because of the combined work by the MSP sports division and the academy and the fact that there is an MSP battalion here in the region that focuses on discipline. Their practice and their food are all well looked after in a disciplined manner," told Kurikesh Mathew, the deputy commandant of MSP when the academy was revamped in 2017, to Goal.
"In football, it is difficult to improve and move forward without discipline. The right amount of rest, the right diet etc are being given to the boys. That is the reason why our teams are performing well in U-13, U-15, U-17 categories and in the Subroto Cup. Other academies find it difficult to implement our disciplined routines," argued Mathew who lifted the Santosh Trophy as the captain of the Kerala team in 1993.
In the U-18 Youth League, goal difference played the villain's role as MSP finished third in Group D in the Rest of India zone. They fell behind SAI Trivandrum and Kerala Blasters, despite racking up the same number of points. Below MSP in the table was Gokulam FC and FC Kerala.
In the U-15 league, MSP Football Academy topped their group. They conceded just one goal and won all four matches to better Kerala Blasters' tally and progress into the next round. They came second in the playoff round behind Minerva Punjab and lost out on a semi-final spot after Bengaluru FC edged past them in the Nike Premier Cup.
Lastly, the U-13 boys of the MSP academy netted 22 goals in four games to progress from their group and lost out to eventual winners Minerva Punjab in the final round.
Talking about the teams' performances, academy coach Binoy C James said, "We are more than satisfied with our performance in the age-wise categories last season. We were facing off against junior teams of ISL and I-League clubs. We played against these teams and reached the final round in the U-15 category. We lost out on goal difference to Bengaluru FC.
"We conduct training sessions twice a day, ten sessions a week. The kids at MSP are growing up in a disciplined manner. They can use the grounds and the gymnasium of MSP available here. There is also a lot of help coming from the schools where a lot of teachers work hard. It is the collective effort that is taking us forward," revealed Binoy.
While MSP has close ties with the Kerala Sports Council, the academy is not funded by the Council and is on the lookout for sponsorships.
"A few kids from the academy are present in the team of the Kerala Sports Council. They are sponsored by the government. For taking the academy team to tournaments, we depend on private funds. Until the year before last year, we had a private group named Odyssia sponsoring us. After the introduction of GST (Goods and Services Tax), companies are reluctant to sponsor us.
"FC Pune City's Ashique Kuruniyan and Gani Ahmed Nigam are the stars of tomorrow. And there are 8-10 MSP products in the junior team of Kerala Blasters. The only issue is that when kids leave MSP academy, the coaching methods are different elsewhere," concluded Binoy.
The flow of talent through MSP's academy is all set to continue as they set out to improve their outputs from last season. This is only the beginning for an academy that is focused on developing the stars of tomorrow.