Sleepless Knights kick their way to the top | Mumbai news - Hindustan Times

Sleepless Knights kick their way to the top

ByRutvick Mehta
Sep 30, 2022 12:49 AM IST

Mumbai: Last year, when Steven Dias was approached to be the head coach of a city-based women’s football team, the former India international was reluctant

Mumbai: Last year, when Steven Dias was approached to be the head coach of a city-based women’s football team, the former India international was reluctant. “Because I had never coached any girls’ team at any level,” Dias said. “I don’t know how it worked and what kind of intensity and training I should expect from them.”

Sleepless Knights kick their way to the top
Sleepless Knights kick their way to the top

A year on, the team, now called Mumbai Knights WFC, are champions of the Maharashtra state women’s football league, beating defending champions PIFA Sports (Colaba) FC on Wednesday to leapfrog them at the top of the league table. The triumph earned the Mumbai outfit a spot in the AIFF Indian Women’s League (IWL), the country’s top domestic league for women’s football.

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The title-winning journey has been a “completely difference experience” for Dias, who has been assistant coach with two teams in the Indian Super League (ISL). His coaching role at Ambernath United-Atlanta FC briefly halted amid the pandemic last year, the club’s owner, Deepu Kesavan, persuaded Dias to take over the women’s team of the club. The girls, in turn, requested merely one training session with him. “I was surprised to see how dedicated they were and eager to pick up drills I was showing them. I realised they truly wanted to learn,” Dias said.

That belief was strengthened when some players of the team, travelling from far-flung places including Vashi, Ambernath and Dahisar, would reach home well past midnight post training and yet not miss a single session. Pressed for availability of slots in grounds and with Dias coaching the men’s outfit in the morning, the girls’ training hours were from 8-10pm at the Train Wings Sports Centre in Bandra.

“Some girls would reach their homes at 12.30-1am. Still, they did not miss one training session the next day and would report 15 minutes early. That’s how hard they worked, and that’s why they have become champions,” Dias said.

Surabhi Manjrekar, 27, would reach her home in Ambernath well past midnight. The next day, she would depart for her job in Kalyan at 7am and then dash off for training again. “Often, I would take a nap at the station itself if the train was late, or reach the ground early because I couldn’t go back home again,” Surabhi said. “It was exhausting and a real struggle, and it was different for each player. That is what makes this victory even more special.”

Even those who weren’t in the squad for the state competition ensured the lights did not go out on the Mumbai Knights’ training gig. Dias recounts a conversation with one of the players from Dombivali, all of 17 and too young to play the state tournament, coming for every training session with her mother in tow. “I asked her what time does she get back home, and she said between 1-2am. I told her, ‘You might be too young to be in this team now, but soon you’ll get there’,” Dias said.

Mumbai Knights also won this season’s MFA Women’s Premier League earlier this year, remaining unbeaten in both the city and state competitions, much like their male counterparts at Ambernath United-Atlanta FC.

Dias did something with the women’s team that he doesn’t usually do with the men: come up with little pre-training games sessions. For example, a few minutes of footvolley between three groups would precede the hours of football of the entire squad. The idea was to blend the spirit of competitiveness with the sense of team unity.

“It not only developed team unity, but also relaxed the girls mentally after a long commute,” Dias said. “Team unity on and off the field can make or break sides, and for me that stood out with these bunch of girls. And you could feel that once it all ended after the final—they all celebrated the victory together, not individually or in little groups.”

With the second division of the men’s I-League and IWL overlapping, Dias has been forced to make a choice between the two teams. “I’ll be going with the boys’ team, because that’s where the future of my coaching path is,” Dias said. “But I’m sure the owner and I will figure out a good coach for the girls in IWL.”

However, the 38-year-old former Mumbai FC and India player understands the significance of his time with the champion women. “When I joined this girls’ team, I had never coached any team as a head coach. I tried all my ideas and strategies as a coach with these girls,” he said. “I don’t know whether I will be a successful coach or not, but if I do become a successful coach, I think these girls would have a part to play in that. They have helped me a lot.”

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