IN THE KOLKATA MAIDAN, ONE OF the oft-repeated phrases that fans use to proclaim the depth of their connection to the sport of football is, "Football is in our blood."
When it comes to Jamshedpur FC's 18 yrar old side back Sandip Mandi, the phrase takes on a different level of meaning,
"My grandfather used to play really well. I didn't see it, but I've heard it from my elders. My father, Sundar Mandi, also played, he was a centre back at Railway FC. My uncle Sagram Mandi plays at defence and midfield, he's played for clubs like Railway FC, Mohun Bagan and Bhawanipore FC. Two of my cousins are playing too, one is at SAI and the other played for ATK's U-18 team last season."
Being born in a family like that, Sandip grew up with the sport being the primary driver in his life. His father, orignally from Chakulia, Jharkhand, had moved to Kolkata for his football career. That's where Sandip grew up, with multiple football professionals in the family to look up to. Then, in a twist of fate, his footballing journey would bring him back to the same Manbhum plateau where his ancestral home was, to play for one of the best acadmies in the country,
"From my childhood, I knew I had to pursue this sport and become a professional footballer. From an early age I started going to our local ground, to see the older kids playing. Soon I could play with them. Then I got selected for Kalyani Municipal Academy. I played for West Bengal junior team, then went to the India U-14 camp. When playing in Kalyani all I wanted was to play at a big club. I wanted to play in Kolkata, be recognized as a footballer. It was all about going through the grind, and one day, it happened. I got a call from TFA."
It was around the time when a number of modern academies were springing up around the country, including the AIFF Elite Academy. This prompted Tata Football Academy, the OG of Indian youth football, to renew their efforts to collect talented youngsters. With the launch of Jamshedpur FC also around the corner, a new supply line for the ISL team also needed to be constructed. Sandip caught the wave, and soon he found himself at the JRD Tata Sports Complex. The dream to play for one of the big clubs in Kolkata was replaced by a new one,
"Coming to TFA, it was a great feeling. Now I was in one of the best academies in the country. Everything was the best, the facilities and the coaching. The best part was the discipline they instilled in us... the quality was comparable to the national camp... the Jamshedpur FC first team used to practice over here, and we used to watch. I was very impressed, seeing them play. I was particularly fond of Tiri. I loved to observe their practice sessions; it was very informative even from a distance and it made me determined that one day I'd prove myself and with these senior players wearing the Jamshedpur FC jersey."
From watching older kids play at the local ground as a kid to attending Jamshedpur FC first team's practice sessions as a junior footballer, Sandip had already come a long way. But he was still far from where he needed to be. Competition at TFA was cut-throat. Sandip played for TFA at the U-18 Youth League before graduating to Jamshedpur FC Reserves.
Still very much eligible for U-18 football, the talented defender was exposed to senior level football by the coaches at Jamshedpur FC for a trial by fire. The transition wasn't easy,
"Going from junior to senior level is always a tough transition. Suddenly you're dealing with a different level of physicality, and you have to strengthen yourself mentally as well to take on an elevated level of competition... you go into tackles with much bigger players and suddenly it's a whole different game. I remember a match we played against Punjab FC Reserves. It was the toughest game of the season for us, and a lot of pressure to withstand. I'm still learning and growing, the training we're getting here is top notch so I'm easing into the team."
2019-20 was indeed a challenging season for Sandip. First, he played for the Jamshedpur FC Reserves against Bengaluru FC Reserves at the Durand Cup. Then, during the January 2020 transfer window, he was promoted to the first team. On 23rd January, he made his way to the Jamshedpur FC bench for the first time as they played Chennaiyin FC away from home. Then, on 2nd February 2020, came the moment he had been waiting for: at a home game against ATK, he was named in the starting line-up for the very first time. Sandip recalled the moment with fondness,
"I used to watch from the stands when the first team played in Jamshedpur. Then when I got to play in that stadium in front of the crowd, it was a dream come true."
His arrival at the Indian Super League, however, proved to be one of the harshest tests he had faced in his career so far, losing the match 0-3. Sandip played 77 minutes, but left the field with a bitter taste of loss. Unbeknownst to him, he wouldn't get to play again at the home arena he had come to love, in front of Jamshedpur FC's dedicated fanbase, for a long time to come.
Sandip played two more matches in ISL 2019-20, both away from home against Mumbai City and NorthEast United. One was a loss, the other a hard-fought draw. Although he was far from being the weakest link at the JFC defence, it wasn't a side that was having living up to its potential. In the last week of February, he was sent back to the Reserves who were playing at the 2nd Division League. He played 4 matches before the season was called off due to COVID-19. In the span of a year, he had gone from playing for the U-18 team, to the reseves, to the first team in ISL, back to the reserves, to suddenly being unable to play at all; confined to his house back in Kolkata due to the pandemic,
"It was a difficult time for us. Because by nature us footballers can't sit and do nothing for too long. All the time we think about when we will train next... at home it was tough to get a proper workout in. Adrian Dias, our Strength & Conditioning Coach, has been sending us charts for diet and nutrition, it made it easy to stay healthy in terms of food."
Life came to a standstill for the footballers in Sandip's family. His cousins, too, had been sent back home. For 8 long months, it was a wait through excruciating uncertainty about when they could return to competition. It was a huge relief for him when he heard ISL would go ahead with a full season. But the caveat was that there would be no matches in front of the fans back in Jamshedpur,
"This season we're not playing in our home arena and there are no fans in the stadium, so it feels very strange. I'm really going to miss the fans, the atmosphere. Our fans are very supportive, very positive about the players on social media. So I know they'll follow our matches on TV and keep supporting."
As the training camp for ISL began, Sandip joined in eagerly, returning to the training and football-centric lifestyle that he had been missing for so long,
"It's been good so far, the camp has come along nicely. But things can always get better. I believe we are on track, if we keep improving the way we are we're going to turn out a good performance this season... pre-season is always tough and this time we had to do it after a 10 day quarantine, so it became even harder. But the facilities here are fantastic which made it easier to adjust to this new reality... I have a great rapport with Bhupinder Singh and Isaac bhai [Isaac Vanmalsawma], they're both on the left side and I also play on the left. They're good friends too. Niraj [Niraj Kumar] is my roommate, we're good friends too."
Although still young, Sandip wasn't going into the season as a rookie. Under newly appointed head coach Owen Coyle, his target was to earn a more important role in the squad,
"Everyone's supportive, both the seniors and the coaches. They tell me not to let the pressure get to my head, encourage me to make mistakes because you learn new things from mistakes. There's Joyner bhai [Joyner Lourenco], Peter bhai [Peter Hartley]... they all keep encouraging me to make mistakes then figure out how to correct them. There is also a lot of adjustment factor with a new coach coming in, every coach has a different strategy... as we stay together and get used to playing in the new system it becomes easier over time... I want more game time. In my mind the target is to play every match. I want to use it to improve as a player and contribute to us winning the trophy, that's the goal this season."
The 18 year old was true to his target when Jamshedpur FC's opening game against Chennaiyin FC came around. Owen Coyle relied on a number of young players when he went up against his former club and as expected, Sandip's name was in the starting line up. It was a tough game, and Sandip put in a hard shift of 55 minutes. Jamshedpur FC lost 2-1 but the game was competitive from start to finish, proving to be yet another trial by fire in the young defender's career. But neither of the two goals that JFC conceded came from the left side of the defence.
Despite the loss and despite not playing the full game, Sandip had achieved a crucial milestone in his career. The faith Coyle had showed on him by starting him on the first match of the season established him as an important member of the first team. He was no longer a wide-eyed kid looking in from outside as the grown-ups played. He was now very much a part of the manager's plans.
Sandip's father did not play professional football. Instead, he went for a job with the Indian Railways and played for their team. His uncle played for Mohun Bagan for a while, but didn't end up being a regular at the top division. Now, Sandip is about to realise both their dreams along with his own, by becoming a prominent player in the Indian Super League.
He's not the first footballer in the family and he's not going to be the last. But Sandip has got a hell of a head start in setting the bar, for footballing excellence in his family as well as giving a new meaning to the phrase, "Football is in my blood."