Lying down in his room, watching the live broadcast of Indian Super League (ISL) 2017-18 player draft, Gurtej Singh was anything but hopeful of being picked up by any club. Ten rounds into the selection, he was certain of being not picked and started contacting Kolkata clubs. ‘’I was seeing the ISL Draft but when the tenth round passed by, I called up the officials of Kolkata clubs claiming that I would be coming because there is no chance of anyone selecting me; it was too late. They had told me to come early and I was ready,’’ he tells Goal. ‘’But, my parents continued to watch the draft while I slept in my room.’’
And as fate would have it, the central defender was picked up in the 14th round, which was the penultimate one. ‘’My mother and father informed me that I was picked so I rewinded the video to check. When I witnessed them announce my name, I finally believed it to be true.’’
The 28-year-old was chosen by FC Pune City for the new chapter of the league. Prior to the player draft, Gurtej was plying his trade at Fateh Hyderabad in the second division of I-League. As the skipper of the side, Gurtej had plenty of playing time under his belt in the second tier of professional football but he hadn’t thought of a step up to the ISL. ‘’Even when I was at Fateh Hyderabad, I thought I’d play in Calcutta Football League (CFL) next and then search for a club in I-League or the second division. I hadn’t even considered ISL,’’ he recalls.
Moving to the Maharashtra-based outfit, Gurtej was aware of what would be expected of him. His initial days at Pune were rough but the center-half grew with time. ‘’I had no hopes to be picked in the ISL draft. But when it did happen, I decided to make the most of it. Initially, things were difficult to adapt but four weeks into the mix, I started adjusting,’’ Gurtej revealed.
Born and brought up in Ropar (now known as Rupnagar) in Punjab, Gurtej took interest in football in the sixth grade, thanks to his father. A fan of Jagatjit Cotton & Textile Football Club (JCT), Gurtej’s father took him to the stadiums. ‘’I used to attend matches of JCT and see Bhaichung (Bhutia) and IM Vijayan, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Regularly attending the matches, I started my own football career along with my academics,’’ he explains.
Representing his school, Gurtej played at the Challenge Cup tournament in Sector 42 of Chandigarh, aged 15. At the tournament were kids from Football Academy, Mahilpur, a renowned centre of learning which has produced several well-known players. At the end of one the matches in the competition, Gurtej was approached by coach Hassan Ali for trials in what was to be the start of his professional football career.
Gurtej played for JCT, Pailan Arrows, Churchill Brothers, Bengaluru FC and Fateh Hyderabad before joining the Stallions. Acknowledging his father’s unending efforts and support right from the beginning of his football days, Gurtej comments,‘’My father was very passionate for football. He had a government job in Punjab but he always took care of my training. He used to wake me up at five in the morning and get me trained before he left for work at nine. Later, he used to take me in the evening for practice again; he was very dedicated for my career in professional football. He was my mentor.’’
Joining Fateh Hyderabad on the advise of his father to attain gametime, Gurtej had a successful spell. Moving to FC Pune City later, he accepted the challenge of proving himself on the bigger stage. When asked what did coach Ranko Popovic expect from him, Gurtej answers, ‘’He asked me to play my natural game on the field. Expressing his belief in me, I was told to play stress-free.’’
However, the defender didn’t have the best of start as his side fell prey to Delhi in the inaugural tie. ‘’When we first faced Delhi, my performance in the first-half was really good but in the second half, I erred and the goal was conceded off me. In the training the next day, while speaking to players individually, the coach told me he still believed in me. This made me more confident and I was determined to perform better in order to repay his faith in me,’’ he adds.
Ranko’s trust proved to be fruitful as the centre-back played a vital role in the defensive unit of Pune, making 109 clearances in the 18 matches played. Gurtej believes that a defender’s job is no more limited to getting rid of the ball off the opponent. ‘’Our job is no more restricted to just clearing the ball. We have to pass around the ball well and my coach demanded the same from me: less of mistakes and more of passes.’’
Under gaffer Popovic, Pune became first-time semi-finalists, their best performance since the inception of the tournament. Currently gearing up for the upcoming Super Cup which sees teams from I-League and ISL participate, Gurtej believes the side has learnt from their mistakes in the past. ‘’With the help of videos, we have rectified our mistakes and understood that we lost because of our own errors. If we play as a unit, then we are better,’’ he concluded.