The 31-year-old Raju Gaikwad has set his sight on the first match of the Hero ISL 2021-22 season against Jamshedpur FC. He believes getting off to a good start can boost the morale of the players. A push that might turn out to be important as SC East Bengal marches to beat the demons of the last season.

From leaving Mumbai and joining Tata Football Academy (TFA) to becoming a seasoned campaigner in the Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) and earning 23 caps for the Indian National team so far, Raju has come a long way. He dedicates his success to amazing coaches like Ranjan Chowdhury, Vijay Kumar, and Carlton Chapman who shaped him during his time at TFA.

“I had a wonderful time at TFA. The training sessions, atmosphere (inside the academy), boys in our batch, and the seniors were all great. They used to motivate us. I had a good time”

While expressing the role of coaches at TFA in journey, he added, “We learnt a lot from the coaches. Carlton Chapman had played for East Bengal at the big level. He shared his experiences with us.”

After leaving TFA in 2010, Raju joined the Indian Arrows set-up. He made his I-League debut against Prayag United at the Salt Lake Stadium. The defender then went on to play for East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, Mumbai City FC, Jamshedpur FC, and Kerala Blasters FC.

The Mumbaikar is ever so grateful to all the coaches he has worked with. He emphasises the benefits of the Indian Arrows project and the emergence of the Hero Indian Super League have had in developing talented young players who would lead Indian Football forward.

Commenting on the contributions ISL has made to Indian Football, he said, “ISL has changed the scenario of Indian football. The Grassroots Football scenario has also changed since its inception in 2014. All the clubs in ISL have youth teams. Reliance have their own infrastructures and academies at the grassroots level.”

“We can see a major improvement in the quality of upcoming youngsters and grassroots programs. I think it’s going great and I believe we will improve a lot more in the coming years,” Gaikwad added.

The seventh season of ISL saw SC East Bengal finish in ninth position and level on points with Kerala Blasters FC, who finished tenth. Raju Gaikwad is focused on the upcoming 2021-22 season without being too much bothered by what happened last season.

When asked about the pre-season camp he remarked, “This season we have a good team with good players and an experienced coach. We are doing our best and working hard.”

He added, “We are quarantined right now but all the players are working hard individually in their respective rooms. We are preparing in the best way possible for the upcoming season.”

SC East Bengal has roped in Spaniard Manolo Díaz for the 2021-22 season. The 53-year-old has previously managed the youth teams, C and B team of Real Madrid.

Describing the training sessions under the newly-appointed coach, Raju said, “The coach is sharing his experiences and supporting us a lot. We began our pre-season 20 days before, where we had great training sessions and played a few practice matches as well. The boys are in great shape.”

The footballing arena has been deprived of the vociferous East Bengal fans who can really get the best out of their players. However, due to COVID19 restrictions in place, the fans are restricted to follow the league from their homes.

Remembering his East Bengal days of the past, an emotional Raju Gaikwad sends a message for the fans, “Playing with and without the fans in the stadium is very different. I have been with East Bengal playing in Kolkata for so many years. The whole team misses them.”

He added, “I know we didn’t have a great season last year. But hopefully this time we will have a great season. I know they are always behind us, in good times and bad.”

For someone who has been playing at the top level for this long, Raju Gaikwad has felt what it’s like to turn dreams into reality.

To the young aspiring footballers around, he concluded with a heartfelt message, “Put your 100% focus. Take appropriate rest and adopt good eating habits. Most importantly, be very professional. Because if you’re professional from the grassroots level then your mindset and everything will be the same when you go at the top level.”