ATK-Mohun Bagan merger came as a shock ahead of Kolkata Derby, recalls Gurjinder Kumar

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Gurjinder Kumar was part of Mohun Bagan for the past two seasons

Sportscafe

ATK-Mohun Bagan merger came as a shock ahead of Kolkata Derby, recalls Gurjinder Kumar

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sounak mullick

05/29/2020

Mohun Bagan merged with ISL outfit ATK midway through last season, which came in as a surprise for many of their footballers. Gurjinder Kumar, a member of Mohun Bagan's I-League winning squad, recollected his memories of the day when the news came crashing down a few days before the Kolkata Derby.

It was all rosy in the Mohun Bagan camp till mid-January - with them having won a couple of games on the trot and finally got back their lost footing in the I-League. The showpiece ‘Kolkata Derby’ was scheduled for the weekend and the players assembled for the training session. The players had no clue how the world around them would change forever, just a few moments later. The club owners assembled and broke the news that Mohun Bagan was all set to merge with ISL outfit ATK to form a separate entity from the upcoming season.

While that was still absorbed with mixed reactions, what followed was hard to bear. The officials stated that some players would be retained based on their performance. The sky fell apart. Players were in a state of shock, well aware they were at the mercy of their rich neighbours from then on. The future, which seemed secured a few while back, looked bleak within the passing of an hour. SportsCafe caught up with Gurjinder Kumar, one of the players present on the spot the day Indian football saw its biggest merger ever, to get an account of what the announcement felt like.

“I’ll tell you one story. We got to know about the developments just a few days before the Kolkata Derby. We came for training and gossiping with each other on what the future might look like. At the end of the day, we had to feed our families and we discussed that the news shouldn’t have been announced before the Derby. We wondered whom we were going to play for - these were the things which were going through our minds. So, one of the officials from our club came and said that they are going to retain the players who have performed well,” Gurjinder Kumar told SportsCafe in an exclusive chat.

Head coach Kibu Vicuna also had his job on the line, with the likes of countryman Antonio Lopez Habas already being at the owners' disposal, with him being ATK’s coach. While the players wandered around helplessly, the ever-so-calm manager Kibu Vicuna trespassed the contingent. In his own delightful way, he somehow managed to convince the players that there is light at the end of the tunnel. He urged everyone to play for themselves, and for the time being, keep aside what’s in store in the future. 

“After the owners went away, the coach got in a meeting with the players. The way he explained, that changed everything - the crux of the matter was to play for yourself. We are together for the last five-six months, we are here to win, so he urged us to play for ourselves. We got pumped up, we realised we have to play to follow the same, think about the present rather than ponder about what was going to happen in the future - we had to win the league,” added the skipper.

It did work wonders, as the green and maroon brigade not only outclassed arch-rivals East Bengal in the Derby but also remained unbeaten in games that followed, winning 10 of the 12 matches including the Aizawl FC match, which marked their championship win before the league was called off due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The side-back was all in awe of the Spanish coach and how he moulded the team into a unit which was literally unbeatable in the league, sans the match against Churchill Brothers in the initial stages.

“He (Kibu) believes in himself and what he’s going to do, his tactics and knows every players’ weaknesses and strengths, and accordingly he prepares the team. The coach worked closely with the technical staff and the way they managed the team, made our jobs quite easy.  When we played the matches, it was very easy for us, as we are already prepared and aware of how the opponents are going to play. The way he reads the game and the opposition, just adds to his brilliance,” said I-League winner Gurjinder.

“He believes in his system. From the day we started and then throughout the entire season, we played in the same system.  We played the CFL, the Durand Cup, Bangladesh and then the I-League, all in the same formation, he always believed that this system would work and eventually the results will follow.”

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Keeping the temperature under control in the dressing room is a coach’s foremost duty, especially in a big club where you have several players warming the bench. The Spaniard never let any of his players feel left out and always kept his troops motivated, even though he only had the option to field 11 players on a particular day. Gurjinder recalls Kibu’s man-management skills, which proved vital at the end of the season.

“He knew exactly what goes on inside a player when he doesn’t get a chance. If a player is left out of the match, he is allotted a training session next day to keep himself fit. The fitness level of other players was taken care of by the physical trainer so that he doesn’t feel left out. Every player worked but playing for a big team, you are aware that there was going to be competition within, it is up to you how to deal with it.”

The Punjab-based footballer was stuck at Kolkata amid the lockdown for over two months, but he’s finally on his way back. Along with other locals from the region, Gurjinder hit the road for a 34-40 hour drive to the Northern state. For the time being, most of the players of the existing I-League winning side are unsure regarding their future at the club, while mastermind Kibu Vicuna has already headed south and joined Kerala Blasters FC as their head coach. There will be further clarity on the future for the rest of the squad when the restriction eases across the country.

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