Underdog Stories: Passion and grit led Minerva Punjab to the I-League title in 2017-18

Minerva were only in their second season, but that did not stop them from lifting the silverware…

Minerva Punjab had a nightmarish outing in their first season in top tier football. Their foreigners failed to make an impact, the technical director Colin Toal was shown the door midway through the season and they managed to win only three games throughout the competition.

It was evident that only a complete overhaul could bring the team back on track and owner Ranjit Bajaj did just  that.

They roped in Spanish coach Juan Luis Perez Herrera in August but even before the season started he was relieved of his duties. And Khogen Singh was appointed as the new manager just two weeks before the commencement of I-League. 

Six new foreigners in William Opoku, Chencho Gyeltshen, Kassim Aidara, Lago Bei, Eric Dano, and Toshiya Hosoe were signed. But none of the players had prior experience of playing in India. 

As far as the Indian contingent was concerned, young guns like Souvik Das, Mohammad Shahwanaz, Girik Khosla were retained along with a host of other names like Gagandeep Bali, Rakshit Dagar, Kamalpreet Singh and Moinuddin Khan.

On November 25, 2017, they locked horns with Mohun Bagan at the Guru Nanak Stadium in Ludhiana in the curtain-raiser. Sony Norde put the visitors in front and just when it seemed that his strike would be enough to bag the three points, Moinuddin Khan scored the equaliser in the 89th minute. 

Minerva then went on to win four matches in succession. They made the most of home advantage and beat teams like NEROCA, Chennai City and Indian Arrows. But none of the victories were convincing. Barring a 2-0 win over the All Indian Football Federation’s (AIFF) developmental side, all their victories were by a one-goal margin. It became evident that this is a tough side to break down as they preferred to sit deep, frustrate the opponents and hit on the counter utilizing the pace of Gyeltshen and Opoku upfront. 

Next in line was a string of away matches, for which they had to travel across the country for a lengthy period of more than a month. Few expected that their juggernaut would roll in tougher terrains. 

Against Aizawl, they suffered a 2-1 defeat. Kareem Nurain came back to haunt his former club and Andre Ionescu scored the second.

Minerva had to respond after the defeat and the Warriors did not disappoint. In the next match against Gokulam Kerala, they churned out a hard-fought 1-0 victory. Gyeltshen accelerated past Balwinder Singh on the left flank before putting the ball on a plate for Gagandeep to score from inside the box. With every passing match, the Bhutanese winger was growing in stature and was giving a tough time to opposition defence. He would start on the left flank and would invariably cut inside to have a crack at goal.

He continued his exploits in the next match against Mohun Bagan and within 30 minutes, he would score twice at the Salt Lake Stadium to stun the home crowd. His first goal was a screamer from 25-yards whereas his second was a simple tap-in after Opoku set him up. 

After the first phase of the league, Minerva were firmly on the top with 22 points. Against East Bengal, they eked out a 2-2 draw and at the end of a gruelling run of away fixtures they still held on to the top spot. 

But inexperience finally reared its head in the business end of the season and Minerva lost two home games on the trot. Their loss to the Red and Gold brigade threw open the title race once again, with Khalid Jamil’s men hot on their heels. 

In the penultimate round, they fell 2-1 to Chennai City and this result was welcomed with open arms in Kolkata as it put East Bengal in the driver’s seat to clinch the championship. But destiny favoured Minerva as Shillong Lajong held the giants to a 2-2 draw. 

Ranjit Bajaj Minerva Punjab I-League 2017-18 champions

Fans across the country waited for the final matchday with bated breath, as Minerva locked horns with a relegation-threatened Churchill Brothers and East Bengal hosted fellow title-hopefuls NEROCA. Mohun Bagan were also in the fray but their chances were slim. 

It took just 16 minutes for Opoku to find the net in Panchkula. Meanwhile, in Kolkata, Felix Chidi had put NEROCA ahead. 

At final whistle, scenes of jubilation flooded the small town of Punjab whereas, it was the familiar tale of despair and gloom for East Bengal fans in the City of Joy. 

Minerva did not try to play fancy football but adopted a pragmatic approach that earned them the title. They remained solid at the back with Dano and Sukhdev, while Aidara in central midfield added the much-needed steel and did his job of breaking opposition attacks. Everyone in the team knew their roles and they stuck to it without trying to go for individual glory. 

They would score from long-throw ins and set-pieces, as they had players like Dano, Bei, Aidara who had the capability to win aerial duels. However, their most valuable player was undoubtedly Gyeltshen. With 12 goal contributions, he remained a livewire in attack. His goals would be decisive and scored when it mattered the most against big teams like Bagan and East Bengal.

Minerva proved once again that it is not about the size of the dog in the fight, but it’s the size of the fight in the dog.