Perseverance through pain – Manandeep Singh’s iron-willed journey in Indian Football

“God gives the toughest battles to his strongest soldiers.” There is determination in 25-year-old striker Manandeep Singh’s voice, as he goes over the injuries which have lent his still blossoming football career a stop-start nature. “But I’ll keep going.”

It was back in 2012 when Singh, the 2012-13 Football Players Association of India’s ‘Young player of the year’ made his debut for the Indian national team. He has not donned the blue jersey since, but Singh hopes and believes that his first appearance for the team (in what was a losing cause to Oman) was not his last. He is made of stern stuff.

That has been evident ever since the days he was representing Haryana, traveling across the country while roughing it out on trains. Even his first exposure to football was “bare foot on muddy pitches” in his hometown of Hisar. In an earlier interview, Singh said, “I’ve never trained at a proper academy. I started bare foot on muddy pitches and got picked straight for nationals and for India in age group and senior tournaments.” In just “one college ground in Hisar, an old man without any coaching license, and purely for the love of football” would teach a young Manandeep and other kids his age the ropes of the game.

Singh during his days with the Indian Arrows

“There was no reservation I’ve travelled for hours sitting near the toilet in trains with the simple will and the joy to play. There were times when coaches didn’t have the allowance to give us for food and if the team ate, I ate — if the team did not, then even if I had pocket money from home I would not eat.”

It is those experiences which have hardened Singh, both to face any hurdle that may come in the way of pursuing his dream and on the football pitch. An instinctive finisher with a well-built frame, he relies on these traits to inflict damage on the opposition whenever he takes to the field.

After starting to play football at the age of eight, Singh initially went on to represent India at the U16, U19 and U23 level. Starting his club career with the Indian Arrows in 2010-2011 (an all Indian team made up of U23 players playing as a team in the I-League to gain regular match experience), he had his most prolific goal-scoring campaign with Air India a season after. In that season, he scored 11 goals in all competitions, earning him a move to East Bengal soon.

Playing for the Indian U23 Team

Moves to two different clubs in as many years was a clear indication that Singh’s talent was being recognized at the top level. A tall, burly striker who could bully defenders, but who could also display a quick turn of pace was uncommon in Indian football and these traits continued to help Singh during his stint with East Bengal. It was after his season with the Red and Gold that he was named the FPAI’s Young player of the year.

But it was around this time that injuries started to play their part in Singh not developing as rapidly as he otherwise would have. In his own words, “The problem with Manandeep Singh is that every club thinks that he’s injured. Even if I’m not injured, everybody thinks that I’m injured. I have a tag on myself. But I’m fit. I’m doing everything that the other players are doing, and I’m just raring to go now.”

Manandeep says this as he currently waits on his future with Mohun Bagan. It is widely known that he is training with the club with the intent of being included in their roster for the rest of the season, but for the Mariners to put faith in him, he must prove that his fitness is beyond doubt.

As unlucky as Singh’s injury record is, his ability to recover from every single one of them is equally impressive. That includes a full recovery from a back surgery, something that footballers are almost never able to achieve.

“It was all going well for me at East Bengal, I even played in the Federation Cup. Then I moved to the ISL, but before that I had two surgeries – one for my ankle and one for Hernia,” he recounts. “I recovered from it and eventually ended up signing with Rangdajied United. But the thing was, I thought I was back, and then in the January itself I broke my Anterior Cruciate Ligament. I had a sword inserted in me. I went to the US for recovery on my own expenses, recovered in four and a half months, and then immediately after signing for Delhi Dynamos (his first stint in the ISL) and playing two matches I hurt my back. For every injury, I had to do a surgery, because if I had a regular job where I was sitting in office, I wouldn’t have had to go through all these surgeries.”

All of 25, Singh’s nomadic career has already seen him play for eight different teams, including a three week training spell with Norwegian second division club Strommen IF. It taught him a professionalism of a different kind, and he took a particular notice of the tempo of the game. All that is now left for him to do is show his worth on the domestic level for a consistent period of time, and the sky is the limit for this still young Indian striker. “I just want to get back into the national team. I want to prove to myself and to everybody else that I’m back, no matter what happens. I hope I can be an inspiration to a lot of youngsters and other people. You know, never give up. Life can beat you down, but you never give up,” he signs off. After all, god gives the toughest battles to his strongest soldiers.

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