Minerva Punjab held their nerve to clinch the title on a dramatic final day, scripting Indian football’s second successive rags to riches story.
At the start of the day Minerva sat atop the table with 32 points, followed by newcomers NEROCA FC on 31, then by the two Kolkata clubs Mohun Bagan and East Bengal a further point behind, So, as we kicked off all four teams were gunning for the vital three points to give themselves the best chance of wrestling the crown their way.
With it all to play for this was the equation. A Minerva Punjab win over Churchill Brothers would mean they’d win the title uncontested. Elsewhere, The Red and Gold and NEROCA both needed to win and hope for favours from elsewhere as they faced off in Kolkata. For the Mariners, who travelled to giant-killers Gokulam Kerala, the equation was arguably the toughest. They needed to win and hope that Minerva lost to the Red Machines, while East Bengal got a point at most. This eventuality would see them steal the crown through the back door. In the midst of all this, the Goans themselves needed three points to avoid relegation.
Following kick-off, except for the Northeast outfit, all of the key protagonists started on the front foot. But, the first piece of significant news came from Panchkula where in the 15th minute the Warriors took the lead through William Opoku. Hotshot Bhutanese striker Chencho Gyeltshen made an attempt towards goal that was poorly handled by the opposition goalkeeper Ricardo Cardozo. The rebound landed kindly for Opoku who made no mistake to put it into the unguarded net.
As it turned out that was only the start of the action. We had to wait barely 10 minutes for the next goal of the afternoon, as Mohun Bagan took the lead in their game down south against Gokulam. Cameron Watson’s thumping shot from outside the box cannoned off the crossbar and poacher Dipanda Dicka was lurking nearby to head the rebound home.
Minerva Punajb are Champions of India! The Chandigarh based side becomes the first Punjabi Club since JCT’s title-winning side in 1996 to win India’s tier Football league!
— Khel Now (@KhelNow) March 8, 2018
Meanwhile, East Bengal’s often profligate attackers were once again guilty of wasting a slew of chances after battering NEROCA for most of the first half. It was only a matter of time before they were made to pay for those missed opportunities and that happened in the 42nd minute. Nick Ward’s inch-perfect through ball set Felix Chidi in the clear and the experienced marksman provided a calm and composed finish, if the opposition needed an exhibit.
There was just enough time for one last piece of drama as Gokulam equalized in Calicut on the stroke of halftime. A long ball sent forward caught the Bagan defence napping as Salman K slipped the ball into the box allowing Henry Kisseka to slot home. At the end of the second half, Minerva managed to keep their lead intact. NEROCA, on the other hand, managed to hold off East Bengal away and finished in second place, while both Mohun Bagan and East Bengal failed to win and finished third and fourth respectively.
Following their maiden I-League triumph, Minerva will participate in the 2018-19 AFC Champions League Playoffs. This is another feather of achievement for the Warriors, four of whose players, Jeakson Singh, Anwar Ali, Nongdamba Naorem and Mohammad Shahjahan, joined up with the Indian U-17 World Cup side. From the four, Jeakson’s goal in the U-17 World Cup provided Minerva with the boost of producing the only player to have scored for the country in a FIFA tournament. The Chandigarh-based club have also won the prestigious Nike Premier Cup twice in a row. Remarkably, the new champions only lost once against the current I-League top four as its finished.
This Minerva success is commendable on several fronts. For one, the Warriors became the first team from Punjab to win the title since erstwhile giants JCT did it over two decades ago. What’s more, even though you may not believe it, they did it on a budget lower than that of last season’s shock champions Aizawl FC.
It is also a win that has helped put Punjab football back on the map. For a team who could not buy a win last campaign, this incredible success has been scripted largely on the shoulders of youthful exuberance. It is truly the triumph of not just a club, but also a community.