Achieved on a shoe-string budget compared to the big boys, Minerva’s title-winning campaign had shades of Aizawl FC’s unexpected triumph over a year ago.
It has been less than two months since the Punjab club won the I-League but the breakup of the title-winning squad has already started. East Bengal have claimed that they have already signed Bali Gagandeep, Kassim Aidara, Sukhdev Singh and Deepak Devrani while Minerva say otherwise.
Mohun Bagan too has dipped its hands in the Minerva kitty with the capture of Abhishek Ambekar and Moinuddin Khan. It was only inevitable that the Ranjit Bajaj owned side would get raided by the Kolkata giants in the off season with their hefty salaries enough to turn the eye of any player.
A similar fate had been suffered by Aizawl after the Mizoram side’s historic title triumph with head coach Khalid Jamil, Mahmoud Al Amna, Lalramchullova and Laldanmawia Ralte signing for East Bengal in the aftermath.
Aizawl ultimately finished fifth in the I-League season gone by, seven points behind East Bengal. A drop-off was always expected for the club after being stripped off its main assets prior to the season.
That does not, however, mean that danger bells need to start ringing for Bajaj’s men just yet. Minerva are largely self-sufficient when it comes to recruiting players. Their strong scouting network and an excellently run academy means that the outfit does not have to rely on signing the big names of Indian football.
Their title-winning squad was largely made up of unheralded names with the likes of Bali Gagandeep being a prime example. Sprinkled with a healthy dose of players having coming through the club’s academy along with shrewd overseas purchases like Chencho Gyeltshen, Minerva had managed to concoct a title-winning formula despite having one of the smallest budgets in the league.
Even losing the impressive U17 youngsters like Jeakson Singh, Anwar Ali and Nongdomba Naorem to the AIFF’s developmental squad Indian Arrows for the season made no negative indent on the club.
The advantages of having a hands-on passionate owner who is involved at almost every level of the club cannot be understated though.
Losing a bulk of your core squad is never easy but it is not giving sleepless nights to the overzealous Bajaj.
“They are all professional players and I wish them luck, but as far as our fans are concerned they should not lose hope because we are building an exciting squad for the upcoming season,” the Minerva owner had told Times of India when asked how his team would cope with the mass exodus of players.
Bajaj’s supreme confidence is not misplaced. The likes of Bali Gagandeep and Sukhdev Singh were hardly known names in Indian football before they were thrust into the limelight with Minerva’s title-winning campaign.
They were able to unearth these hidden gems through their scouting before and there is no doubt that they can do it again. Bajaj himself remains bullish about the club’s ability to withstand the mass exodus and his fearless attitude permeates through the club.
He himself will be supervising a trial camp for U22 players in the third week of May. It was in a similar such trial camp that left-back Abhishek Ambekar was spotted by the Punjab club previously. A string of impressive performance in the I-League this year was enough to convince Mohun Bagan to come in for the youngster.
It is the modus operandi of the Kolkata giants to cherry-pick and sign the established stars in the league but Minerva’s approach is world’s away from that one.
It is never easy to replace a large part of the squad in a short span of time but small steps have already been taken.
Head coach Khogen Singh and his assistant Sachin Badhade have been retained for the coming season along with goalkeeper Arshdeep Singh, winger Akash Sangwan, left-back Akashdeep Singh and midfielder Amandeep Singh. Most of the names mentioned have come through Minerva’s impressive youth system.
And the team will be ready to go again. Come next year, even that side might end up being pillaged by the big boys in the league but that won’t be a problem for Bajaj either, because the ‘Minerva way’ will still remain.