Services won their first ever Santosh Trophy back in 1960 when they beat West Bengal 1-0 in the finals. They had to wait for 41 years to bag their second title. Eventually, in 2011, they got their hands on the celebrated silverware when they defeated Tamil Nadu 3-2.
Since then they have won the trophy four times, getting the better of heavyweights like Kerala, Maharashtra and Punjab on two occassions including the recently concluded edition. Yet, the team management did not consider themselves as one of the favourites before the start of the campaign.
"Players come from different wings of the military (Army, Navy and Air Force), and then you have just around 15-to-20 days to impose your philosophy. It is a tough job to combine and build a team in such scenarios," says Parshuram Salwadi, the head coach of Services to Goal.
The side had a mixed start to the tournament. In spite of beating Puducherry 3-0, they went down 2-1 against Telangana. Next, they were up against defending champions Kerala. It was a do-or-die match as another loss would have knocked them out of the tournament.
In a closely fought encounter, Services managed to edge past Kerala, courtesy of a 63rd strike from Bikas Thapa. The win not only helped them progress to the next round from Pool A in the South Zone. In the process, they also knocked out Sabbir Ali's Kerala.
"The win against Kerala gave us the confidence that this can be our year. Bengal had already bowed out and now Kerala went out of contention. So, we thought that if we can stick to our game plan and with a little bit of luck we can reach the semis at least," said Anustup Sarkar, a member of the team management.
The team embarked on an unbeaten run and registered a place in the semi-finals after blowing away Meghalaya 5-0.
"If the loss against Telangana was an eye-opener, then the win over Kerala boosted our confidence. We practised really hard since February. Our methods are a bit different since all our players come from an army background. We play tough football and this set of boys had some quality as well to give the so-called powerhouses a run for their money," revealed Sarkar.
Sarkar spoke of quality and it showed in the semi-final against Karnataka. It was a brilliant give-and-go between Nitin and Thapa which unlocked Karnataka's defence and the former then sent in a low cross into the box which was tapped home by PC Lallawmkima.
"Most of the times we play out from the back. We do not like to play long balls. We move the ball quickly and that makes life difficult for the opponent," said Thapa, who broke into the Services team for the first time in this edition and has stolen the limelight by scoring three crucial goals including the winner in the final against Punjab.
Salwade and Sarkar knew that clinching the championship would not be easy as they would be playing Punjab in front of a vociferous crowd in Ludhiana.
"Punjab have players who are stout and they use their physical superiority to their advantage by playing long balls. So we decided that we would press high while chasing and when we have the ball we will move forward by playing only ground passes," revealed Sarkar.
Their high press game reaped dividends as Harjinder made a mess of a square pass from his fellow centre back and Thapa rifled a shot into the net from outside the box to net the eventual winner.
Promotion lends motivation
"I play for Army Red. In the previous year, I could not make it to the final squad for Santosh trophy. This year I gave my blood and sweat in the selections. We are guaranteed promotion if we manage to at least reach the semi-finals of Santosh Trophy. So, after qualifying from the group stage, there was no looking back for me. Now that we have won the title I will get a promotion which will help me support my family better," said Thapa who came to India in his teens from Nepal to earn a living by playing football.
For others like skipper Suresh Meitei and goalkeeper Vishu VK, they hope that the Santosh trophy win would catapult them to the national stage and some I-League clubs will offer them a contract.
"After the win I have received a few offers. Previously, the army management would not give us NOCs to play for other clubs but things have changed now. I want to play at a higher level which is only possible if I get a club which plies their trade in any of the professional leagues," said Metei who is in talks with TRAU FC for the upcoming season.
Vishnu, who won the trophy for the second time with Services, also hopes that fortunes will change this time as he has more experience under his belt.
"When I won for the first time in 2015 I was 21. Generally, teams prefer goalkeepers with experience. Now I have pulled off some good saves in the final as well against Punjab. Now I hope, that some professional team will offer me the opportunity to play."
If Jiten Murmu and Rajesh S were the breakaway stars from the previous edition of Santosh Trophy, this year we have the likes of Thapa, Metei and Vishnu who have shown that they have the potential to perform in a professional league. Only time will tell whether these players will find the suitors they long for.