Unwind: FC Pune City’s Baljit Sahni on conquering fear and being a versatile player on the pitch

“The Punjabi players are not to be seen anywhere. The young players, who play for colleges and universities, have nothing lined up for the future. It’s all down to the players to go to clubs and give trials on their own,” quips FC Pune forward Baljit Sahni in his strong Punjabi slang, which has earned him the nickname Paaji among his teammates.

He is lamenting the lack of football clubs from Punjab. In the past few years, the number of football clubs from the state has reduced. Minerva Punjab FC, operating from Ludhiana, is the only football club from Punjab in India’s top two football divisions today.

Sahni himself was a product of JCT, which during its 16-year-long existence in India’s top division football, provided a platform for young players from the state to rise.

“After JCT got relegated from the I-League, no one has put the required effort to bring up another team (from Punjab). Even when they tried, financial problems prevented them from achieving success,” he says.

Sahni is a fighter. On the pitch he is a tiger, constantly pressing the opposition defenders, sometimes a tad too much – his habit of getting sent off is a testimony to his eagerness. Off the pitch too, the man from Mahilpur (Hoshiarpur) is never ready to give up.

In 2009, Sahni and his JCT teammate Sunil Kumar were seriously injured in a bike accident in Goa. Sahni fractured his wrist, and also injured his shin, and required 25 stitches during treatment.

“When the accident happened there was a match the next day, and I had also earned a call-up for the national side,” remembers Sahni. “I was affected by the fact that I missed the one-month-long national football team camp due to my injury. But I recovered quite fast. I left the hospital in a week and I played a match in a month’s time,” he adds.

“When the ball was coming in the air, I was a little anxious to head the ball. There were stitches in my head and I was worried how I will able to head the ball. But slowly, through practice, I overcame that fear,” says Sahni. He scored for his team in the comeback match.

After starting his professional career in JCT, Sahni went on to represent East Bengal for five years, after which he made a switch to Indian Super League (ISL) side Atletico de Kolkata. He went out on loan to DSK Shivajians during the I-League season and was later picked up by Chennaiyin FC. The forward last played for Mumbai FC before making the short relocation to FC Pune City. While Sahni has always preferred to play the role of an attacking winger, he has had to don the role of a centre-forward on multiple occasions. But the man has no complaints.

“It is all up to the coach. He has to make the team and he has to see who all he has available and what positions they can play (in). I believe I can play in two-three positions,” admits Sahni.

The man just wants to play football.

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Watch: Former Manchester United star Denis Irwin on winning the ‘treble’, Sir Alex’s ‘Hairdryer’ treatment and Jose Mourinho

Mumbai: The first thing I notice as I walk up to Denis Irwin is his size. He is smaller than what I had imagined him to be while watching him double up with Ryan Giggs in Manchester United’s left wing to annihilate their opposition.


I look at him again. His head belied the body beneath. It was relatively large, with trimly cut grey hair, and a clean-shaven face.

While the Sherlock Holmes-instilled idea – larger the head, larger the brain and hence larger the intelligence – has long been debunked, Irwin is a testimony to why the myth existed in the first place.

In his prime, the Irishman was exactly that – a thinking footballer, who valued his manager’s words and stuck to doing what he was told to. He might not have lit up the football field like his compatriots Eric Cantona, David Beckham, Ryan Giggs or Paul Scholes, but his ability to play in both the full-back positions, coupled with his defense-first approach, made him an integral member of the Manchester United squads who went on to conquer Europe in the 90s.

In his autobiography, Sir Alex Ferguson, the club’s most decorated coach, called Irwin one of his greatest signings and said the fullback was perhaps the first to make into his team sheet.

“Basically all he wanted was the players to get their heads down and work as hard as possible and give their very best. And I think that’s what I did. So we never had any trouble. One or two arguments as you would expect in 12 years and I thoroughly enjoyed working under him,” explains Irwin.

Sir Alex was known to dish out scathing criticism if his players didn’t perform to their potential. Even Irwin, his hardworking faithful, wasn’t spared the infamous ‘hairdryer’ treatment.

“Everybody thinks it (hairdryer treatment) happened every week and all that. It didn’t happen that often but when it happened it was just because you fell below your standards. To what I can remember, I’d say everyone got it except Eric Cantona,” he says.

One of Irwin’s unheralded traits was his versatility. He joined the club as a Right-Back but had to shift to the left position due to the rise of Gary Neville from the class of 92’. Irwin took it as a challenge and went on to become one of the greatest left-backs in Premier League.

The full-back (wing-back) position has come into prominence once again with the likes of Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola utilising the defenders to initiate attacks of their teams.

“They (full-backs) are more attacking now than even in my day,” says Irwin. He is talking about the staggering money being spent to sign full-backs, particularly Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker.

“I mean when you played at Manchester United in my day you had to be very confident on the ball, you had to be defensively very strong and you also had to be capable of going forward. Now it has a changed a little bit where defensively you might be able to get away being a little bit. With the holding midfielders covering up, fullbacks are encouraged to go forward. They have almost become very important and hence, Mendy and Walker going over 50 million,” he adds.

As legends go, in November 1992, Manchester United chairman Martin Edwards received a call from Leeds’ Bill Fotherby. Leeds wanted Irwin back at Elland Road. The Manchester club immediately dismissed the interest, but manager Ferguson, known for his ability to spot the potential for a good deal, prompted Edwards to casually enquire if Cantona was up for sale. The rest, they say, was history, as the iconic French forward joined the Red Devils and helped them win multiple trophies.

Much like his unheralded career, the decision to keep Irwin often goes untold when the United faithful talk about ‘that’ winter of 1992. Considering how much Irwin went on to achieve in his time with United, the winter of 92′ had already become special the moment Edwards and Ferguson turned down the offer from Leeds.

Irwin was in India to promote ‘Gulf Fan Academy’ – a joint venture between Manchester United and Gulf Oil to promote football in Asia. ​

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Unwind: Vishal Kaith’s journey from the hills of Himachal Pradesh to Indian national team

Pune: One of the pillars behind FC Pune City’s good Indian Super League 2017-18 campaign (9W, 3D, 6L in the league) was their goalkeeper Vishal Kaith. The 21-year-old keeper, who has represented the Indian national team in various age groups, peaked in form as the season progressed and produced some crucial saves to keep the team from Pune in the battle for a play-off spot. The shot-stopper secured seven clean-sheets and made 45 saves in his 17 appearances for FC Pune City this season.


But the story of Vishal Kaith would have been drastically different had it not been for a few individuals in his life. “I didn’t know a lot about goalkeeping when I went to the Sports Hostel,” says Kaith, who was more fond of playing cricket and boxing in his younger days in Himachal Pradesh. “I didn’t even know I will be a goalkeeper when I went there. It was the last year for the Hostel’s goalkeeper because he was about to graduate. There was no keeper, so the coach there, Vikram Panda, he saw my height and asked me to keep for a few days. So I started keeping and I think he saw something in me and made me a goalkeeper,” he adds.

At 21, Kaith has progressed remarkably from the ‘tall boy who could keep’ to becoming the first choice goalkeeper for an ISL side, and is slowly becoming a stable member of coach Stephen Constantine’s Indian football team. Though he might still be far away from replacing Gurpreet Singh as the last man of defence, the future is bright for the lanky footballer from the hills.

Watch the video here