Dipendu Biswas possesses a unique feat. The former India striker was a part of the Mohun Bagan and East Bengal teams when they won their maiden National Football League (NFL) titles in 1998 and 2001, respectively.
Biswas, who won the NFL/I-League five times in his playing career, has a chance of winning his sixth, albeit as the team manager, when Mohammedan Sporting Club (MSC) take on defending champions Gokulam Kerala FC (GKFC) in a winner-takes-all clash on Saturday evening at a packed Salt Lake Stadium.
Staying true to its recent tradition, the I-League title race has once again come down to the wire. Just when the Mohammedan faithful lost all hope of claiming their maiden I-League crown, table-toppers Gokulam, who were six points clear of the Kolkata outfit until Tuesday, suffered a 1-3 defeat in their penultimate fixture against Sreenidi Deccan FC (SDFC). The result revitalized Mohammedan’s title chances after they won 2-0 over Rajasthan United FC (RUFC) in their penultimate game.
The Black and White brigade (37 points) currently trail Gokulam (40 points) by 3 points and must win on Saturday to clinch the coveted trophy by virtue of a better head-to-head record as the two sides played out a 1-1 draw in the first leg.
In a candid chat with Sportskeeda on the eve of the match, Biswas beamed with confidence and assessed Mohammedan’s overall performance this season, including their Calcutta Football League (CFL) triumph after a 40-year drought and a runners-up finish in the 130th Durand Cup. Here’s the full interview.
Q: Mohammedan have winning momentum on their side and will enjoy the crowd support on Saturday. Is it fair to say that Gokulam Kerala will be under more pressure?
Biswas: Our fans are our ’12th man'. Gokulam will have a tough time eking out a draw in such a high-pressure contest. For us, it’s a must-win game, so we don’t have any other option (laughs)! It’s good in a way as it helps you stay focused. I’ve seen many teams come from behind and win championships. The second leg of the UEFA Champions League semi-final between Manchester City and Real Madrid is a recent example.
A two-minute spell by Rodrygo changed the complexion of the game, that too in the closing stages. I think Manchester City got overconfident whilst having the lead. It’s quite natural in football. We are taking inspiration from Real Madrid’s comeback.
Q: Mohammedan’s goalkeeping coach Sandip Nandy and you have played numerous high-voltage matches at the Salt Lake Stadium. Being two legends of Indian football, how are you guiding the youngsters in the side who aren’t used to playing in packed stadiums?
Biswas: The youngsters in our team have one big advantage. They played the Durand Cup semi-finals and final in front of nearly 60,000 people last year. We played well in both games, but lost the final to a heavyweight ISL team like FC Goa after extra time. The crowd support will motivate our players to bring out their best. When you walk through the tunnel and hear thousands of supporters chanting Mohammedan’s name, it acts as a big confidence-booster.
In the Durand Cup semi-final against FC Bengaluru United, we conceded a goal in the first minute. But we managed to retaliate with four goals because we got immense support from our fans. I hope the crowd will back our players the same way against Gokulam.
Q: You’ve been inside a bio-bubble for over three months now. How does it help in team bonding and how do you deal with fatigue?
Biswas: As Mohammedan’s football secretary cum manager, I would like to thank our investor Bunkerhill Pvt Ltd for keeping the whole team in five-star hotels throughout the year. This has made bonding a lot easier as the boys stay together through thick and thin and enjoy the best of facilities. That said, the bubble, especially the hard quarantine, can take a toll on your mental health because you can’t step out of your room for days.
Q: In hindsight, what is your assessment of Mohammedan’s overall performance this season?
Biswas: It has been a great season for us. We’ve won the CFL, reached the Durand Cup final, and are now on the verge of winning the I-League. No team becomes successful overnight. When Manchester City appointed Pep Guardiola as their coach five years ago, he was given a long-term project. We blew hot and cold last season, but it has been a different story this season as we now have a set plan. It’s a three-year project that is already bearing fruit.
Q: If Mohammedan Sporting Club enter the ISL within the next couple of years, can we expect Andrey Chernyshov to remain at the helm?
Biswas: As I said, we have a three-year plan, so the coach will continue with us for at least two more years. He has been brilliant and earned the respect of every individual in the squad.
Q: You need to have a settled core for a long-term project to be successful. How confident are you about retaining the current squad?
Biswas: We’re trying our best to retain eighty percent of the current crop of players. We cannot retain Faisal Ali as he has already signed a pre-contract with Bengaluru FC. We’re currently looking for a young and speedy left-winger like Faisal.
Q: Are you planning to recruit players from the West Bengal squad that finished runners-up in the recently concluded Santosh Trophy?
Biswas: Yes, we’re considering a few names from that squad. Since we’re focused on winning the I-League, we don’t want to reveal the names as that might affect the concentration of some of our current players.
Q: Hyderabad FC have shown a lot of interest in Manoj Mohammed. What’s the latest update on him?
Biswas: We’ve assured Manoj of his place in our playing XI if we enter the ISL next year. He has fitted into our system nicely, but will have to prove his mettle if he moves to another team. Take a look at Bidyashagar Singh. He was the I-League’s leading scorer last year, but has played only ten minutes in the ISL.
These players are quite young, so game time is more important than money at this stage. Akash Mishra will most likely be retained by Hyderabad. Mishra’s agent has come to Kolkata and we had a good talk. If Mishra stays at Hyderabad, be rest assured that Manoj will stay with us (smiles).
Q: What about Marcus Joseph? Have you extended his one-year contract?
Biswas: Marcus will stay with us. We’ll also retain Nikola Stojanovic and Shaher Shaheen. This time, we’ll give them long-term contracts because we want the coach to have a set core.
Q: Marcus Joseph has been your biggest match-winner this season. What sets him apart from his counterparts?
Biswas: He talks to me the most. I gave him a target at the start of the I-League. I told him that we wanted ten goals from him in the first ten matches and seven goals after that. The best thing about him is that he’s a fierce competitor and has a child-like quality about him.
After scoring 10 goals, he wanted a new phone, which we gave him. He has scored 15 goals so far. He has said that he wants a PlayStation if he reaches the 17-goal target. Hopefully, he’ll score a brace on Saturday and win the prize (laughs)!
Q: Which young Indian players from your squad have impressed you the most this season?
Biswas: Manoj, Zothanmawia, Saiful Rahman, Wayne Vaz and Asheer Akhtar have a lot of potential and have put in key performances for us. I’m not naming Sheikh Faiaz and Brandon Vanlalremdika as they are already established players.
Q: Gokulam Kerala will miss the services of their skipper Sharif Mukhammad, who was shown a red card in their previous match against Sreenidi Deccan FC. How big an advantage is it for Mohammedan?
Biswas: It’s certainly a big advantage as Sharif is one of their best players. They’ll miss their left-winger Mohammed Jassim, who’ll serve a suspension too.
Q: Mohammedan need to go all out against Gokulam Kerala. Can we expect the attacking duo of Henry Kisekka and Marcus Joseph to start together?
Biswas: See, the coach prefers Andjelo Rudovic, so we don’t want to interfere in his plans. You have to trust the coach’s vision and give him full freedom. I don’t think there will be any change to our starting XI.
Q: What is your message to the Mohammedan fans ahead of the big match?
Biswas: I’m tired giving away tickets (laughs). I would urge all of them to come to the ground and cheer us on. We are on the cusp of creating history. You surely don’t want to miss the opportunity to see it live from the stands.