Growing up in Chak Kataru village of Punjab, Gagandeep Bali took to football as late as the 11th grade. As an undergrad at Khalsa College, he represented Punjab in the Santosh Trophy. While all other boys in the squad belonged to Punjab Police, Delhi Board or Border Security Force (BSF), Gagandeep was the only representative from college football.
Fast forward to 2012, he received an offer from Goan outfit Salgaocar FC after the 2012-13 Santosh Trophy campaign. Signing a two-year deal, Gagandeep plied his trade at Goa. However, several months down the line, he applied for a government job at Accountants General Punjab in sports quota which had two vacancies in football. And after being selected for the post, he had to part ways with the Goan outfit.
However, after he joined the office, Minerva Punjab showed interest in him. ‘’Minerva Punjab was inviting me to join their B Division and I approached my office to discuss the same,’’ he tells Goal. ‘’But I didn’t take the risk back then and instead opted for a two-year break. Later, I played in Chandigarh League where I faced Minerva Punjab in a friendly and that is when they presented with an offer.’’
Joining the Ranjit Bajaj-owned side, Gagandeep Bali’s journey to glory kick-started. His versatility was first spotted by Spanish coach Juan Luis Perez Herrera in the pre-season. Things didn’t work out quite well for Perez who had to depart due to a communication barrier. However, his eye for detail worked wonders for Gagandeep whose all-round performance proved to be vital in Minerva Punjab’s title-winning campaign.
‘’We were facing BSF Jalandhar and one of the defenders had got knocked down. Since we didn’t have anyone else on the pitch or on the bench to replace him, I was slotted into the defence by the coach (Juan Luis Perez Herrera). I had started the match as a striker but shifted to the back due to the player’s injury. This was the first time I was playing in defence and I got better at it with time,’’ recalls the 27-year-old.
Gagandeep credits his high fitness level to be the main reason for his multifaceted game. ‘’If a player is fit, there is no problem in adapting anywhere on the field,’’ he explains. ‘’I make sure to practice well and have the adequate amount of rest coupled with diet; if the balance isn’t maintained then it doesn’t reap results.’’
Discussing the routine prior to the gameday, the Minerva Punjab player reveals that the team undergoes low-intensity training while they also studies the style of play of the opponents. ‘’A day prior to match day, there’s a light practice. We would focus on the shape of the team and the positions of the players. The defensive duties for set plays are decided during the one-hour session which is followed by rest. Also, the video analysis of the opponents is shown to us to learn their strengths and weaknesses and how to combat the same.’’
A workhorse for Minerva this season, Bali was deployed in several positions as the situations demanded. Thanks to his physical stature, he helped Minerva while defending numerous set-pieces. ‘’The coach (Khogen Singh) would tell me to man-mark the opposition player who would go for headers. I was told to disturb him if he receives the ball. My position on the near or far post would depend on the movement of my man; I had to follow him,’’ discloses Bali while explaining the gaffer's orders.
Currently residing in the government quarters of Accountants General in Chandigarh, life has been hectic for Bali as he shuttles between the field and the office. ‘’It is very difficult to manage, honestly. However, whenever I need leaves for playing, the officers are co-operative. When I played local matches, I would attend office for an hour or two and mark my attendance. Sometimes, I’d practice in the morning, return and head to the office, then rest for a while and return to office yet again. I had to adjust a lot,’’ he remarked.
Involved in two sessions daily, one in the morning and one in the evening, the Chandigarh-based outfit has been preparing for the upcoming Super Cup where they face Indian Super League side Jamshedpur FC in the pre-quarterfinals. Speaking about the tournament, Bali expresses, ‘’They (ISL players) are better players than us; their level of experience is high. They have been through better facilities at every level: their training, coaching, diet, et al. Hence, the focus is on fitness because we think it is highly essential while facing ISL teams.''
Gagandeep had just three goals to his name but his work rate is what caught the eye of the fans. And that ultimately, was a key element in Minerva Punjab’s first glory in India’s top-flight football.