New boys Minerva finally find their feet

It was perhaps the match of the I League so far, certainly the highest scoring. In the battle of two teams placed at the bottom Minerva Punjab edged out Churchill Brothers 5-4. Fortunes swung one way and the other before an 87th minute penalty conversion sealed the match.

Minerva would feel perhaps that it was about time that they enjoyed a period of good fortune. Making their debut in the I League, nearly everything that could go wrong did initially.

They only got to know they were playing the league, a couple of weeks before it actually started. While other teams had their line ups settled, the club from Chandigarh was still getting its set up in place. It didn't help that many of their players were inexperienced, having just graduated from the U-17 and U-19 age groups.

"Our players didn't even know each other's names until about the third game," says Ranjit Bajaj, the owner of the club "Our international players too were coming in one after the other."

In their second game, away against Aizawl FC, first choice goalkeeper Ravi Kumar picked up a ligament injury. In the same game a goal in injury time saw them pick up their first loss. As coaches and players struggled to find their structure, the side faltered badly, hemorrhaging goals. At the end of their first five games, they were rock bottom - losing four and drawing one.

Against the two big clubs - Mohun Bagan away and East Bengal at home - they had lost 4-0 and 5-0 respectively. They had scored one and conceded twelve.

The wheels seemed to be falling off their campaign when technical director Colm Toal parted ways with the club after a 0-0 draw at home against Churchill. In hindsight perhaps, it was perhaps the jolt the club needed.

"We were looking to survive against big teams. We weren't confident of winning," says Bajaj.

In addition the team was shielding their younger players. This made little sense to Bajaj, whose U-16 team has won the age group I League two years in a row. The decision was made to switch things around. The results came almost immediately.

The next game following the goalless draw, 17-year old Baoringdao Bodo and 19 year old Anirudh Thapa were on target as they beat Mumbai FC 2-1 - their first win of the season.

The team has gone from strength to strength ever since. They held Bengaluru FC to a 1-1 draw next and the side has been unbeaten in four games, winning two and scoring eight goals.

"In the first few games, we were still not sure what positions to play in. We just weren't gelling as a team. We are playing more attacking now," says Surinder Singh, who took over from Toal.

The team has consciously decided to focus on its youngsters. Against Churchill, a total of seven age group players took to the field - four in the starting line-up and three substitutes. Anirudh Thapa was one of the latter, coming in in the 80th minute. He had started four matches previously and he would justify his coach's trust in him by winning the penalty with a strike from 25 yards.

"I was playing as a winger, which isn't my position. Against Mumbai, I returned to being a defensive midfielder, which is my favourite position. The team has shown faith in me. I am glad I am being able to contribute," Anirudh says.

With six games to go, Minerva will benefit from playing five at home and they are keen to make amends for their horror start. "We are going to play Mohun Bagan at home and away at East Bengal. We want to make those clubs realise we are a lot better," says Surinder Singh.