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Dream date with Red Devils

Krishanu Santra at Old Trafford

Long before Sir Alex Ferguson took position in the dugout for the March 5 Uefa Champions League pre-quarters against Real Madrid at Old Trafford, with a chewing gum between his molars, a dozen Indian boys “drew up” a Nelson-like strategy for the Manchester United coach to checkmate the Spaniards.

Among the 12 strategists was Calcutta boy Krishanu Santra, part of a team of Indian youngsters selected through the Airtel Rising Stars contest last September for a weeklong training camp at Manchester United Soccer School.

Two Manchester United Soccer School coaches had asked Krishanu and his fellow rookies to suggest a combination that would be potent enough to sink Jose Mourinho’s men from Madrid. They came up with a 4-3-2-1. Sir Alex, obviously oblivious of the scheming youngsters’ game plan, chose 4-4-1-1 — and lost.

The 14-year-old flew into the Red Devils’ den and returned, but not before engaging himself in a Real plot, learning new tricks with the football at an indoor ground, beating a local team 3-1 and watching the Man U superstars in action — live.

Krishanu shared his memories with Metro.

Off we go

I was growing anxious as five months had passed since I was selected for the trip. Finally when I boarded the plane in Mumbai en route for Dubai for the connecting flight to Manchester, I started counting the hours. Though Rosele, Remitri and Jordon, who became good friends during the final selection camp in Bangalore, were giving good company, I was growing restless. Rosele and Remitri are from Shillong. They are defenders like me, while Jordon from Pune is a left-winger.

When the flight attendant announced we were nearing Manchester, I noticed moisture on the window. It was 2 degrees Celsius at the Man U hometown and the cold hit me the moment the plane’s door opened. I quickly, and proudly, put on my Team India jacket….a cherished memento from the Under-13 AFC Championship in Iran.

The United way

Next morning, I woke up but a beautiful United dream lingered on with the promise to never fade away from my life.

At 8.30, we boarded a bus to the training grounds. Will it be Old Trafford? We wondered. But the bus skirted the stadium and took us to Carrington grounds. Day One began with a two-hour-long drill under the watchful eyes of Kevin O’Connell and Andrew Cunningham, two of the four Manchester United Soccer School coaches who came to the Bangalore camp. From Day Two, there were two sessions. Each drill started with a warm-up to set the pace for the next level of training.

We played a 3-vs-3 game to hone our skills on developing understanding between team-mates.

Kevin and Andrew taught me many tricks that a defender requires to have: covering, positioning, man-marking during set-piece moments and defending in a 2:1 situation.

We also practised at the indoor facilities of the Cliff Training Ground.

The grass in a covered arena floored me. We were brought here to understand the difference between playing with a headwind and without. After the training sessions, Sir Alex’s game plans and tactical moves were discussed. It felt like being in the United squad!

Ole! Old Trafford

Heads swooned as we headed for Old Trafford after the second day’s training. We treaded the very path that United players take to enter the stadium for a match. It felt surreal as we went into the dressing room. The jersey of each player was hanging at his designated closet. This was snapshot moment and I posed next to the closets of Robin van Persie, (Rio) Ferdinand, (Patrice) Evra, (Wayne) Rooney and (Antonio) Valencia.

Next, I was walking down the tunnel where the Glory Glory Man United (the club theme song sung lustily by its legions of fans) was playing in the background. I could almost hear how the home crowd greets a player of the 19-time English Premier League champions. A roar so loud it can be heard in distant Calcutta!

On the horizon, the imposing gallery rising from the green field’s edge stood like the side of a massive dam with thousands of red chairs and some strategic white ones forming the name of the 135-year-old club. I was speechless. I quietly strolled up to the sitting area for the host team, and felt the chair where Sir Alex sits and draws up strategies. Yes, the same seat that is responsible for crafting so many memorable encounters over the past 27 years.

It was crazy to be there and we didn’t know whether to click pictures or sit down awhile to soak in football history at its glorious best. I did a bit of both.

Battle of pride

Surprises don’t startle me anymore! After the third day’s training session in the morning, a friendly against Wimslow Albion, a local team trained by Andrew Cunningham, was on the menu. There was a bit of a nerve attack initially, but a dressing room pep talk got us back into the groove. “We haven’t come here on a pleasure trip but to play. We will prove that.” Poof! Panic flew out of the window.

We wrested advantage soon after the whistle, but the local lads equalised from a corner. Desperate to regain the lead, we fought hard and chased well. For me, there were eventful moments when I took a free kick but it kissed the side bar. And my determined tackle on Harry, the opposition striker. The yield from our efforts was sweet. We scored twice and won the encounter convincingly, 3-1.

Cunningham patted my back after the match: “Well done, Krishanu.”

Fun and game

The last practice session was fun. We participated in some exciting games with the football. I came second in one of them and narrowly missed the prize: a Manchester United Soccer School badge. Kartik, a striker from Delhi, took it.

The day before we left Manchester, we visited a shopping mall in the morning. It was so big that I feared getting lost there. We also took a tour around Old Trafford and posed beneath The United Trinity — statues of Bobby Charlton, George Best and Denis Law.

Best at the end

I was getting used to the surprises in store when the last one of the trip was unleashed upon me. We were taken to Old Trafford to watch the Red Devils live. I felt so proud to watch the FA Cup match between Manchester United and Reading with the home crowd showing how they exercise their vocal chords.

It felt like our own Eden crowd. Going into the break with a 0-0 scoreline, United came back roaring after the break with a brace (Nani and Hernandez) before conceding one towards the end.

The score was immaterial for me. I was overwhelmed by the occasion and Old Trafford! The dream followed me even when I was boarding the flight back home.

Which football club’s home ground would you like to visit? Tell ttmetro@abpmail.com