ISL Final: Manvir Singh, two good feet and an eye for goal
Going by comments in the media, Manvir Singh has already revised what he thought was his best goal four times. That is the kind of Indian Super League (ISL) season the ATK Mohun Bagan player is having. One where, going into Saturday’s final against Mumbai City FC, he has scored six goals, which is twice as many as he got in 47 games at FC Goa (2017-20).
His latest goal -- against NorthEast United in the second-leg of ISL7 semi-final on Tuesday -- is his current favourite.
“Not because of dribbling against two defenders but because the goal was scored in the semi-final,” he said, after Bagan won 3-2 on aggregate. Previously, it was the first goal on a night he scored two against Odisha FC, an angular delight from the right edge of the area after opening his shoulder.
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The one prior was the goal against Hyderabad FC, Singh ploughing through the middle and stabbing home with his right foot. Singh’s first favourite was the goal against SC East Bengal on November 27. Because, he had a “dream” to score, “if I get a chance to play in a derby.” It was the first time this term that Singh had beaten a challenge and cut in from the right before scoring with his left foot.
“World class,” Bagan's talismanic striker Roy Krishna, who knows a good goal when he sees one, had said. Coming off the bench to score that goal “lit the fire and he has gone on and on,” said commentator Phil Brown, the former Hull City coach, in on Tuesday's post-match show.
Singh, 25, is Bagan’s second highest scorer after Krishna who has 14 goals. He also has three assists meaning Singh alone has featured in 25.71% of all Bagan's goals (35). The only other Indian who has contributed more is Sunil Chhetri (10). Mumbai City FC’s Bipin Singh too has nine goal contributions (5 goals, 4 assists) but has played 1661 minutes which is 205 more than Singh (1396). Among the finalists, Singh has 15 shots on target which is one more than Mumbai City FC’s striker Bartholomew Ogbeche. True, Ogbeche has eight goals but it took him 44 shots, 10 more than Singh.
“One of my job roles is to look for Indian players and our idea was that he and Jobby (Justin) would share the responsibilities of playing wide midfielder,” said Sanjoy Sen, the Bagan assistant-coach, over phone from Goa. With Bagan paying almost ₹75 lakh as transfer fee, Singh didn’t come cheap. According to officials familiar with the developments, it was the second highest for FC Goa after Mumbai City FC paid around ₹1.6 crore for Hugo Boumous.
Justin got injured before the season began and Singh has played in all 22 games. “It is one thing to get an opportunity. Quite another to make it count so credit to Manvir for repaying the faith coach (Antonio Lopes) Habas showed in him,” said Sen. In a team where playing out wide is the preferred option, Singh is crucial to Bagan going forward.
As Mohun Bagan coach from 2014-18, Sen said Singh had been on his radar. “But he joined Mohammedan Sporting (2016). He was then a striker. He has worked hard on his left foot at FC Goa, I think because (Sergio) Lobera would often deploy him on the right. You need to work on your left foot because it is what you would use for most goalbound shots,” said Sen. Now the Mumbai City FC coach, Lobera said at Friday’s virtual media meet that it felt good to see a player he has worked with doing well.
Every time Singh scored with his left foot -- exactly half of his goals this term -- Mridul Banerjee would have a sense of déjà vu. Banerjee was Mohammedan Sporting coach in 2016 when he heard of a striker from Punjab. “I got him over. He didn’t do badly, we were second in the Kolkata league but then I was sacked,” said Banerjee.
Before that, Banerjee had got Singh to work on turning inside and shooting on goal. When Singh got drafted to Bengal’s Santosh Trophy squad, Banerjee said he got 20 days to work with him. A drill often used would be having four defending inside the box and getting Singh to cut in from both sides and shoot, said Banerjee. The goal Singh scored to give Bengal their 32nd and last Santosh Trophy title came off his left foot.
“He (Singh) is a quick learner, has great attitude in training. He is a good kid,” Krishna told the official broadcasters on Tuesday. Standing alongside, Bagan striker David Williams said: “We are where we are because of his (Singh’s) contribution as well.” On Friday, Lobera said: “Even though he didn’t get many games (at FC Goa), Manvir was a real professional who worked very hard.”
Singh made his India debut in 2017 and has three goals in 14 internationals. He was introduced to football by his father Kuldeep. The former Punjab striker also represented Punjab State Electricity Board and ensured that sons Manvir and Harkamal played in their village ground in Jalandhar district. “I got him to play in all positions,” said Kuldeep over a crackling phone line from his home near Alampur. It is 20km from Sansarpur, the famous cradle of hockey, but Kuldeep said football is the most important sport in the village.
Singh went to Khalsa College and from there to the Minerva academy in Chandigarh. Singh said he trained at Minerva before this season too. As player, Kuldeep said he had offers from Mohun Bagan and East Bengal in 1993 but couldn’t go due to family commitments. “So I didn’t want Manvir to miss out.” An accident at work in 2014 has left Kuldeep wheelchair bound and he has only seen his son on television. “Someday when Manvir plays at Salt Lake, I will go,” he said.