“All of a sudden the pressure piled on,” Hira Mondal says. Much like everyone else, the 24-year-old was caught unawares when March 2020 came along. There was no beautiful spring in the offing. When it all turned upside down, Mohammedan Sporting were training to face the Hyderabad FC Reserves in the I-League 2nd Division at Kalyani Stadium. That game, and all after, were called off. Till when no one knew.
Mondal lives in Baidyabati, a town roughly 40 kilometres from Kolkata. When the pandemic-induced lockdowns hit the country, he hastily went back home to his mother and younger brother, Niranjan.
“The first concern was obviously because no one knew when football would come back on. The lockdown was one thing. But then came the cyclone [Amphan]. Baidyabati station suffered massive damage. All the roads were shut in and out of town...”
It is a year on, and while much has changed, a lot still hasn’t. Mohammedan are still being Mohammedan, with a mini financial crisis — and salary issues — appearing and then disappearing just as quickly. An official statement has put any salary payment concerns to bed, for now.
Mondal is still in lockdown, a bio bubble, playing for Mohammedan as they look to make headway in what is their first season in seven years in the I-League. It is Mondal’s first too.
His has been a journey that maps the Kolkata maidan. Aryans at the junior level, East Bengal Under 19, Calcutta Port Trust, Rainbow, Tollygunge, Peerless, back to East Bengal and now Mohammedan Sporting. He has played all his life in Kolkata and, now 24, is still here. Except this time he isn’t playing the Calcutta Football League Second Division or the Premier Division.
By all accounts he has made a bright start. It was his long crossfield ball that saw Mohammedan score the goal that beat Sudeva Delhi FC in the opener to notch their first and only win of the season so far. In their last game, against TRAU, it was Mondal again who scored a close range header — found by a brilliant Tirthankar Sarkar ball — to help them claw back a point in a game they were losing 2-0. In a team filled with much lauded colleagues like Jamal Bhuyan, Raphael Onwrebe and Subash Singh, Mondal is the man getting them breakthroughs up front. He is a defender. A wing back. A sign, maybe, that century-old Mohameddan are not uninterested in playing 21st Century football.
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“I’ll say this openly and without meaning any offence to any of my former coaches,” Mondal says. “Our coach [Jose Hevia] has afforded me the freedom I never previously had.” Hevia is known to favour bombing wingbacks, and designs a game style that is reliant on their overlaps. The freedom and confidence he gives his players is one they remember years after he has gone.
Naorem Mahesh Singh, the diminutive midfielder for Sudeva Delhi FC, played under Hevia at Shillong Lajong and remembers him as the manager who “gave me full freedom and confidence to play as I want”. Mondal is thriving under similar treatment.
Mondal’s personal progression hasn’t yet caught on to the rest of the team. They are third on the table, with two draws and a narrow win from three games. They were pre season favourites, a tag that means nothing anymore. Their only solace may lie in the fact that their fellow favourites — and next opponents — RoundGlass Punjab FC are five places below.
At a pre match press conference it was put to Hevia that the TRAU game showcased strong characters within his squad. He acknowledged that, but also laid into the circumstances that demanded said character. "We had a performance to forget in the first half,” he said. “And then in the second half we really dished out one to get a point.”
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In a weekend of odd fixtures — the oldest survivor of the I-League meeting the newest entrant, young Arrows meeting young Aizawl — Mohammedan vs Punjab ranks right up there as the one to watch. If only because no one knows what these teams are and what they will give. Roundglass have curated a squad that seems intent on self destruction via defensive disorganisation. Mohammedan seem hellbent on playing like they prefer montony over goal-soaked melodrama.
For all his attacking instincts, Hevia is refusing to acknowledge that maybe the team needs goals from the men hired to get them. Instead the defense is prime on his mind. His words: “We are working hard to perfect our defensive movements and if we play to the best of our abilities, we can easily get a win against them [Punjab]."
For Mondal the game is also a chance to meet an old teammate, Jiten Murmu. “He is a strong player,” Mondal laughs. “And I mean that literally. He is hard as rock. It will be good to see him again. Hopefully we’ll have the better game.”
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