Arijit Bagui was brought in last summer by Mohun Bagan. Sarthak Golui who was to be the first-choice right-back was loaned out to FC Pune City and suddenly Bagui was competing for a spot in the playing eleven with Gurjinder Kumar at the start of the I-League in November 2017.
It was no surprise that Sanjoy Sen decided to go with the more experienced of the two for the first game of the season. Kumar was at fault for the late equaliser Minerva Punjab scored to draw the match 1-1 and was dropped. In came Arijit Bagui in the lineup for the next game - the Kolkata derby against East Bengal.
A 1-0 win followed and Sen seemed to have found his replacement for Pritam Kotal, who left for Delhi Dynamos. "This is my first time in a big club. The seniors and the coaching staff supported me a lot. Coming from a small club, everyone helped me settle in quickly," Bagui, who has already won the Sikkim Governor's Gold Cup in October with the Mariners, told Goal.
Tragedy struck when he was stretchered off in the next game itself where he injured his ankle after a tackle by a Churchill Brothers player in an off-the-ball incident. During that three-week layoff, Mohun Bagan experienced one of their most tumultuous periods in recent history. Sen resigned following three draws and after sufferinghis first league home defeat in three years with the club were languishing in the sixth spot.
"It pained me a lot to see the team losing when I was sidelined with injury. Teams like Mohun Bagan and East Bengal play to win the championship. In my case, I played for a champion team Mohun Bagan and constantly dropping points hurt us.
"It might have been okay if I played for a team who was there to just make up the numbers. Losing so many points in the first half the season almost made it difficult to keep up in the title race. We were under pressure and personally I was very sad," recounted Bagui.
The Dankuni resident made his comeback co-incidentally on the day Sankarlal Chakraborty took full-time charge - in a 2-0 win over Aizawl FC. After winning 21 points from 11 matches thereafter, Chakraborty kept Bagan in the title race till the last day of the league. They turned around the season to finish third, four points behind champions Minerva Punjab and Bagui played in each of the final eleven games.
"There was a lot of talk after that phase that we will never win the league and now only have to prepare for the Super Cup. Personally, I still had the belief and never even once I thought we could not go for the title. From my perspective, I wanted us to play our games and win them and that could have put pressure on the other team surrounding us. We still had more than half of the season to go," said the former Peerless SC man.
Mohun Bagan play their Super Cup Round-of-16 game against Churchill Brothers on 1st April and the 24-year-old had his sights set on that.
"It's do-or-die clash in the Super Cup. We've played them (Churchill Brothers) twice but there's no point looking back. Personally, I look always to give my best. Sometimes it doesn't happen sometimes it happens."
He added, "I watched their game against Delhi Dynamos, they played very well. Now, (Willis) Plaza has also joined them. It is a much stronger team. I have to be careful against Nicholas Fernandes. We conceded a goal from his corner in the away game. We wouldnt like to repeat those mistakes again."
Bagui did not draw comparisons between Sen and his former assistant and eventual successor Chakraborty. "Everybody at the club loved him (Sen). He had to step away because of those bad results. He used to motivate me a lot. He used to say this is the time to prove yourself, you have to make use of the opportunity. Sankar Sir always tells me there is a long road ahead," he revealed.
He also spoke about his long-standing partnership with central defender Kingsley Eze Obumneme, with whom he used to play for Kalighat MS and Peerless SC. "I used to play as a winger, both left and right flank at Kalighat and then I was converted into a right-back at Peerless. With Kingsley, it has been a long journey.
"The team always benefits if there is a prior understanding between the players. The communication in the defensive line is always important. We help each other out on that front. If I commit a mistake, Kinshuk Debnath is one of the players who is quick to help me out," he commented.
He also stated that he is ready to listen to suitable offers for next season. "I will take a call after the Super Cup. If there is a better opportunity, then I will try to grab it even if it is outside Kolkata."
Talking about his ambitions, he said, "As a child when I started playing football, I had two dreams. The first one was to play in one of the big Kolkata clubs and the second one was to represent the senior Indian national team. By God's grace, I have ticked off one this season.
"I'll have to keep on playing diligently and put in more hard work, let's see when it (India cap) materializes. If I reach that standard and there is an opening, a call-up will come automatically," he concluded.
A Mohun Bagan right-back since the turn of the millennium has always been a hot property in Indian football. With predecessors like Surkumar Singh and Pritam Kotal to live up to, Arijit Bagui has his task cut-out.