As FC Pune City prepare to host NorthEast United in a key Indian Super League clash at the Balewadi Stadium in Pune on Wednesday, one player in the home side who would be looking forward to improving on an indifferent start to his season is centre-back Gouramangi Singh.
'Mangi' to his teammates and peers, the 30-year-old Singh has had a stellar career for club and for country, but was guilty of failing to trap a long ball against FC Goa in their previous match, which allowed Rafael Coelho to sneak in behind him and equalise for the Goans. It wouldn't matter ultimately, as Pune ran out 2-1 winners on the night and registered their first points of the season.
Singh, who was with Chennaiyin FC during the inaugural season of the ISL in 2014, was part of the 2015 campaign for Pune City, when the team led the table at one stage early on, but then failed to register a single away win and missed out on the playoffs.
"We weren't good enough (last year). In the game of football, we get what we deserve," says Singh, reflecting on a season whose main failure has already been corrected in this season's first away match in Margao.
Wednesday's game will come against a team that represents a region where Singh hails from, and one whose culture inspired him to take up sport in the first place. "I grew up in a village called Awang Sekmai, about 17 kms east of Imphal, and growing up, every corner of my village had a football pitch. It may not have been well-maintained, but you could see people playing. You would be going to your tuition classes, and they would be playing. Not just football, even boxing, running," says Singh.
"I remember getting inspired by people like Bhaichung Bhutia, IM Vijayan and Renedy Singh when I was a student at the Manipur Public School in Imphal. I used to see their names quite regularly in the newspapers and would read about their exploits," says Singh. "Later on, all by accident, I went from a regular school-going boy to playing for India. I never had any aspirations of playing for the country. Renedy, Bhaichung, Vijayan...all these guys are so much more senior. Being in the same dressing room as them was so surreal."
Singh has not added to his 69 international caps, the last of which came at the 2013 SAFF Cup final, but he has a place in history as the first Indian scorer at the continental AFC Asian Cup in 47 years, when he scored the first of India's two goals against Bahrain in Doha in January 2011.
"Obviously, the first thing is that as a defender, you never think of scoring a goal in 90 minutes. Your job is just to defend well for the entire game. I must thank Bob (then head coach Bob Houghton) for encouraging me to step up to the penalty box during free-kicks and corners," says Singh. "I was overjoyed when I scored, and now that I think back, I can recall seeing the excitement in the faces of all my teammates on the bench that day. I remember Bhaichungbhai jumping up and down. It was only a fleeting moment but it was a great experience."
With the Indian team securing some good results in recent years, Singh knows his chances for a national recall are limited, but that doesn't bother him.
"Stephen (Constantine) wants to have younger players, because he is building the team for the next 5-10 years. I have to keep doing what I have to do," says Singh. "I have to go out every morning and train with the same intensity...not just for the national team, but for myself."