Debjit Majumder, the keeper of Mohun Bagan's fortunes
The town of Hindmotor, just outside Kolkata, is famous for being the manufacturing hub of the Ambassador car, a symbol of stability and reliability for several decades. It's a fitting coincidence that it's the hometown of the I-League's best goalkeeper, Debjit Majumdar, who kept eight clean sheets in the heart of the league's best defence, conceding only 12 goals in 18 games.
This was Majumder's second 'Goalkeeper of the League' award in three seasons, the previous one helping Mohun Bagan win their first national league title in 13 years, in 2014-15.
Majumdar worked his way up from institutional teams and smaller Kolkata clubs before signing up with East Bengal in 2011-12. His maiden season there was a forgettable one, with only four appearances, including one in the Calcutta Football League (CFL) where East Bengal were beaten 4-1.
Former India goalkeeper Kalyan Chaubey was one of his advisors, who told Majumder, then 24, to try his luck with Bhawanipore FC, a second-division team based in Kolkata.
"He wasn't getting a chance to start in the bigger clubs and we advised him that it would be better to be in the first team of a smaller club," says Chaubey of a two-year stint that ended in Bhawanipore almost clinching the second division title in 2014. They would narrowly lose out on promotion to Royal Wahingdoh, losing the last match 3-2 in Aizawl to the Shillong-based side that they had led by two points going into the game.
Those performances caught the eye of Mohun Bagan, especially with Bagan's regular goalkeeper Shilton Paul heading off to Chennaiyin FC for the first Indian Super League (ISL) season. The 2014-15 I-League turned out to be the breakthrough season for Majumdar, with the Kolkata derby against his former club East Bengal in March 2015 easily the start of the keeper's rise.
East Bengal had Nigerian strikers Ranti Martins and Dudu Omagbemi leading their attacking line at the Salt Lake Stadium that evening. They were in imperious mood for the first 45 minutes, working well with the midfield to keep coming at the Mohun Bagan goal, but Majumder kept everything at bay. Bagan got a chance early in the second half to hit on the counter, and Balwant Singh gave them a valuable 1-0 win that put a dent in East Bengal's title hopes and also re-ignited belief in a team that was looking to keep pace with defending champions Bengaluru FC.
"His biggest strength is how brave he is and how adamant he is (to do well). For a goalkeeper, decision-making is very important, especially when it comes to getting out of the goal to collect crosses or corners, or to stop shots. A lot of goalkeepers are brave in coming out, but don't time well and end up conceding," says Chaubey.
Majumder has built on that successful first season to become the first name on the team-sheet for coach Sanjoy Sen. Statistically, Mohun Bagan have had the best defensive record of all teams across the last three I-Leagues. They have conceded the fewest goals among all teams that have played the three seasons and Majumder has been in goal in 45 of the 54 games over the three campaigns.
He will be further boosted by the news that India coach Stephen Constantine has named him in the 35 probables for the AFC Asian Cup qualifier against Kyrgyzstan, and will be heading to his first India camp. The first call-up, in March 2016, caused a bit of a storm as he chose to stay with his club for a crucial I-League game against Aizawl FC, something which no doubt irked Constantine at the time.
Chaubey also dismisses the theory that Majumder's relative lack of height counts against him. "Arpan Dey, Hemanta Dora, Bhaskar Ganguly -- all of these goalkeepers wouldn't have had such successful careers if height, and not agility and flexibility, was the only criterion for a good 'keeper. If one goalkeeper is 6'3" and conceding 20 goals a season, and another is 5'8" and conceding just eight, then you shouldn't be ignoring the latter just because of height."
Chaubey feels every footballer's ambitions come with "an expiry date", but he agrees that at 29, Majumder might just be hitting peak form. That, according to Chaubey, will make him a key player in Sunday's derby between the two most successful teams in the history of the Federation Cup.