As Indian Super League (ISL) outfit ATK FC and Mohun Bagan merge ahead of the upcoming season, Sanjoy Sen is poised for a prodigal return. About a couple years back, he was the head coach of Bagan, in fact one of their most successful ones in recent history.
Under him, Mohun Bagan won their first I-League title in 2014-15 and the 2015-16 Federation Cup and then in the 2015-16 I-League, they finished second to champions Bengaluru FC by two points. On Sen’s watch, Mohun Bagan became the first Indian football club to win a round in the Asian Champions League (ACL) qualifiers when they beat Tampines Rovers 3-1 in January 2016.
Then he joined ATK in 2018 and has been playing a key role as the team’s assistant coach. Last season, ATK went on to win the ISL title but this season, of course, the challenges will be different. The Head of Youth Development at ATK-Mohun Bagan explains the plans for the upcoming season, the foreign player policy in the ISL and his ‘coincidental’ return to Bagan. Excerpts from an interview.
How have you been spending your time in lockdown? How have the players been coping with the entire pandemic situation?
As soon as we returned after playing the ISL final in Goa, I went into home quarantine. Even before the lockdown was announced by the government, I decided to stay put at home as a precautionary measure. I have been staying occupied, taking walks on my terrace, only going out to get necessary essentials.
The players are also in quarantine… These days, players are very professional minded, they know what’s best for them. Even last season when the players had just arrived, the Indian players I am saying, their fitness was quite up to the mark, so we were able to settle in fast… This time, it’s certainly different, the players have been given strict fitness regimes at home set by our physical trainer, Alvaro (Ros Bernal) and, of course, our physios are keeping tabs on them.
We are hearing the season will be a little delayed because of the pandemic, so the off-season might be a little extended. I am not sure how the players will come back after an extended gap, we will have to wait and see how much of an impact it has on them. It will be challenging for all of us.
What is your take on the current foreign policy? Should the number of foreigners be reduced?
I have always been an advocate for fewer foreigners in the squad and in the starting XI. We follow AFC guidelines, right? We don’t follow UEFA or anything… In AFC tournaments we can’t play with more than 4 foreigners. Now if we have 6-7 foreigners in the team and of them, 2-3 are not included in the AFC competition squad, there might be an ego clash. That is one thing.
Now, more importantly, in the end, we are all working for the development of Indian football. If only foreigners are picked for the most vital positions on the pitch, we will never produce domestic players for those key roles.
If you are saying that reducing foreigners will have an affect on the quality of football, I would not worry about it. 2-3 years back, it was different, the foreigners who were coming were older, easily in their 30s and way past their prime. Now if you see Hugo Boumous or Sergio Castel or even our Carl McHugh, they are top players who are in their best years. The quality of foreigners now is way higher than what it was, so it won’t make a lot of difference if you reduce two foreigners from the pitch and instead play quality domestic players.
Last season, we saw Sumit Rathi’s rise, being promoted from the reserve side and making a name for himself in the ISL… can we expect any other youngster this year given the way the first team is being built with additions of Subhasish Bose, Manvir Singh and others?
See it depends on a number of factors. In the 2018-19 season, Ricky (Lallawmawma) was one of the best left backs in the league. In fact, in my opinion, he was the best domestic player that year for us. But when (Antonio Lopes) Habas came in, he wanted to play in a different style and in that style, Sumit was a better fit than Ricky. We tried out different combinations but in the end, Sumit got his breakthrough and he did well.
Coming to this season, of course we have the likes of Boris (Singh Moirangthem), Komal (Thatal) in our squad and add to that Dheeraj (Singh) and Sumit. Nothing is finalised. If SK Sahil and Subha Ghosh from Mohun Bagan are also in the final squad, I don’t know what the situation is, but if we get them, it will bolster our squad. We will have to wait and see how to best fit the youngsters in our plans. The new rule of having to include two developmental players in the matchday squad will definitely pave the way for youngsters to get more chances.
Given the AFC Cup challenge, how is the team going about it..what ambitions do you have in the tournament..what is the plan for the upcoming season in general?
The AFC Cup is a tournament we are all looking forward to, it’s a first for ATK-Mohun Bagan, it’s a first for many of the players. From my experience from coaching Mohun Bagan in the tournament two consecutive times, I know just how challenging and tough the competition is. We definitely hope to do well in the tournament but it’s still in a very nascent state, as far as planning and preparations are concerned. We have to wait and see which teams we are drawn with in the group stage, how our team shapes up.
For now, we plan to hold on to six of our foreigners from last season, we have a strong group of domestic players… Williams is already there to fulfil the Asian quota, we will see if we need another foreigner in the roaster. But nothing is finalised yet, there might be a change in plans in the days to come. As I said, because of the pandemic, nothing is concrete. We haven’t yet had our first board meeting, so we have to wait and see.
Lastly, what are your thoughts on the ATK-Mohun Bagan merger and what will be your message to the fans?
See this merger is a fantastic thing for Indian football. For me, personally, it is coincidental. A lot of people have asked me that you left Mohun Bagan and now you are back, but it is not in my control, right? When I came to ATK, no one knew this merger would happen. Now I am very much excited at the prospect.
To the fans, I will say only one thing, when I was at Mohun Bagan, I saw your immense support. Playing in the ISL is something that the club has always wanted to do, and the fans had waited for the day when they will compete in the ISL. I hope they will continue to support the club as they have been doing for a hundred years and, on our part, we will do our best to give a return gift.