In 2007, a budding midfielder was released pre-maturely by the Tata Football Academy (TFA). Dejected, confused and scared, he was in hunt for a shelter where he could continue his development as a player. A decade later, that kid has been termed as the 'destroyer' by his national team coach Stephen Constantine for his natural ability to break up play at the centre of the park and thwart opposition attacks.
"I am grateful to the Mohun Bagan academy in Durgapur for allowing me to join them at that critical juncture. Roy Barretto helped me a lot during that time. While I was playing for the academy, the coaches instilled in me a hunger to outperform myself every time I took the pitch. I carry that hunger even now. After I came back to TFA, Ranjan Chowdhury Sir also helped me a lot and under his guidance I accelerated my progress," reminisced Pronay Halder in an exclusive chat with Goal.
History testifies that football has always had a special place for its prolific goal scorers. Few appreciate the efforts put in by a defensive midfielder who lends stability and dynamism to the gameplay and remains a vital cog during transitions. The Barrackpore-born midfielder acknowledged that he was anxious to score for a long time and has been practicing long rangers in training.
"Everyone wants to score. I was trying to get my name on the score-sheet for a pretty long time. Other players like Dhanpal (Ganesh) who also plays as a defensive midfielder, were getting goals but I was not being able to score for a long time. I was fortunate to connect well on that occassion (against Chinese Taipei) and the shot was on target. I always practice shooting from distance in the training sessions and I am happy that it finally came to fruition," said a relieved Halder.
The Indian team were in fine form during the Intercontinental Cup where they brushed aside Chinese Taipei 5-0 and defeated African powerhouse Kenya twice in as many meetings while their only loss came against New Zealand where they went down 2-1. Halder also agrees that the Kiwis were a tough nut to crack although he feels that there was not much difference in quality between the three teams.
"Just because we scored five against Chinese Taipei does not mean that they were an easy team. Almost all three teams were at par. But if I have to pick one, I would say New Zealand. Their sense of positioning is very good. They have the right balance of possessional and physical football."
After Sunil Chhetri fired India to a 2-0 lead against Kenya in the opening 29 minutes, the Blue Tigers were content to defend the lead. In the second-half they even shifted to a 4-5-1 formation for sometime with only Balwant Singh up top. Halder admits that it was the team's strategy to defend as a unit and to avoid conceding at any cost.
"If one scores two goals in the first-half then the team would not like to take unnecessary risks. If we had been trailing then we would have attacked all guns blazing. We did not want to concede at any cost and so the whole team defended as a unit," he stated.
"This Indian team has a fantastic understanding. We were clear in our heads about what we have to execute on the field and we did that. Also everyone is willing to cover for another's mistake which is an added bonus," the Casemiro admirer revealed.
His partnership with Anirudh Thapa in midfield has worked wonders for India and the former Mohun Bagan player heaped praise upon his team-mate.
"Thapa is a special guy. He is so humble and respectful. I always want to motivate him. We have a understanding that we will always cover each other's mistakes. His passing ability is fantastic. Although he is younger to me, I have no qualms in learning from him."
Since the last edition of Indian Super League season (ISL), Halder has improved technically and his tendency to go into the referee's book for a mistimed tackle has gone down drastically. He thanks India team coach Stephen Constantine and FC Goa coach Sergio Lobera for his improvement.
"I had a tendency to pick up silly yellow cards. Even a year before I was prone to being sent off. I play as a defensive midfielder and so I have to commit tackles. Stephen (Constantine) helped me a lot with my positioning and the timing of my tackles. Lobera has also guided me a lot when I was with FC Goa. He made me understand where I was going wrong. In practice, when I went for the final tackle a bit early, he rectified me each time. He would speak to me personally after practice sessions to help out," said a grateful Halder.
The TFA graduate missed out on the inaugural edition of ISL with a knee injury and that lost opportunity still pinches the midfielder.
"It was extremely disappointing. Every player wants to take part in the something new. I underwent a knee surgery. Many former players told me that it would not be possible to play again with that intensity. When I played against Salgaocar after seven months and 10 days, I was overwhelmed. I became Man-of-the-Match so it turned out to be extra special," said an emotional Halder.
In the next season of the ISL, he is set to return to his familiar stomping ground after signing for Kolkata outfit ATK. He is not only excited to re-unite with his old team-mates from Bagan, but he also wants to leave no stone unturned to help ATK clinch their third title after a disappointing campaign in 2017-18.
"In the beginning of season four I was not playing regularly in Goa. I wanted to have more game time. Then Sanjoy Sir called me and asked if I wanted to come and join ATK. I had no second thoughts. Prabir (Das) and Debjit (Majumdar) also told me to come and join ATK. Many former Bagan players are coming together once again. I have not yet won the ISL. I will give in everything to win it next season for ATK," he explained.
Halder is focussed on keeping himself in pristine shape in order to play a vital role in the Asian Cup 2019.
"It has been a dream to play in the Asian Cup. The most important thing now is to keep oneself fit before the tournament."
It is still a little over 200 days to go before India step onto the pitch in United Arab Emirates (UAE) for their first encounter against Thailand but it is evident that Constantine's trusted midfield lieutenant has already envisioned his role onn how he would thwart the opposition's attack.