TOWARDS THE END of the 1990s, the Sikkim Government launched an initiative called 'The Search for More Baichungs Scheme' throughout the state. The idea was to hold trials in every district to find out kids with promising football skills, shortlist a bunch of them and groom them at the Subroto Cup and later on later on a Santosh Trophy squad out of them. With luck, and years of proper training, a few of them would go on to become professional footballers.
Among the thousands that showed up at trials around the state were two boys from a nondescript town in West Sikkim, who were schoolmates, shared a love for the game but had to go around looking for proper games to play because their school did not have a team of their own. The two boys made it through the district trials together, then into the 30 boys shortlisted in the state finals. The entire group was interred at the government run Sports Hostel at Namchi, and many of them soon made it to the Sikkim Junior Football Team. The two boys in question, who would later go on to become familiar faces in the Indian domestic football circuit, are Bikash Jairu and Sanju Pradhan, the latter of whom celebrates his 26th birthday today.
Sanju's journey up the professional ladder took him all over the country, starting with a 2 year stint at Air India, followed by 5 years at East Bengal that saw the 5 foot 6 inch winger attain footballing maturity. A reliable presence in the flank who kept opponent defenders on their toes with his speed, crosses and diagonal invasions, Sanju immediately became a fan favourite at the Kolkata club. He was never much of a regular scorer but played a vital part in building up the attacking moves. His performance in the AFC Cup, as well as the famous penalty he scored against Mohun Bagan in 2011, made him one of the iconic East Bengal players of the past decade. In 2012, he became a part of the Indian team at the Nehru Cup, and made 3 appearances in the victorious campaign that captured the nation's imagination, albeit momentarily. He was also the captain of the team for more than a season.
He was among the first wave of players to sign with IMG-Reliance when they initially floated the ISL in 2013. He was without a team for half the season before being loaned to Dempo towards the end of that year. In the inaugural season of the ISL he made 8 appearances for ATK, and played a part for Salgaocar in the I-League 2015-16. But when the ISL Draft 2015 came along, he was not picked by any franchise; one of the many high profile players to end up without a player.
So today when he celebrates his birthday, which happens to coincide with the Independence Day, his career is at a critical juncture where he must recover the reputation that has taken a hit because of the ISL snub. But at 26, some of his best years are still ahead of him. His biggest struggle going ahead will be to recover his place in the national team, and the upcoming I-League season will be a good place to start.