Bleak 2016 behind, Brandon Fernandes finds his groove with Churchill
On September 20 1994, there was a christening ceremony for a baby boy in Goa, attended by Churchill Alemao, a former chief minister of the state and the owner of the Churchill Brothers football club. Alemao raised a toast that day: "One day your son is going to become a great footballer".
Two decades on, that boy, Brandon Fernandes, is one of the stars of Churchill Brothers; after a successful I-League season with them, he boosted his reputation on Sunday by providing the assist for the equaliser in the Federation Cup match against East Bengal.
Brandon has by far been Churchill's best player this season, guiding a low-budget, quickly-assembled but highly skillful team to a respectable sixth in the I-League - a position that looked out of reach early in the season. He initiates most of their attacks, dictates their pace, makes key passes and is deadly on set-pieces. With 3 goals and 7 assists to his name, the Goan, in his first full season, has come to the party. Churchill are now looking to carry their momentum and their attacking flair - they were the fourth-best goal-scorers in the league - to the Federation Cup.
Brandon arrived in India two seasons ago, after little success abroad. He had come close to getting trials with Leicester City, where he trained with Jamie Vardy and Jesse Lingard (on loan from Manchester United), Reading and Sunderland before coming back to India. Having once decided not to play anywhere other than Europe, given that he'd trained abroad from an early age, it marked a reversal of his stand.
In his two years in India, Brandon played for Sporting Clube de Goa and the Indian Super League (ISL) team Mumbai City before getting snapped up by Mohun Bagan last season. It was his worst year professionally; an ACL injury restricted him to six games in two seasons.
"After I got injured I said to myself, this is the time I have got to get stronger. You don't know how strong you are until you have no choice but to be strong. So I think I put that in my mind and I did everything possible to get strong. That gave me confidence to go for that hard tackle. I'm mentally prepared. So every time I go on the pitch I am out of that set-up and I play freely. I think that gave me more confidence rather than focusing on thinking that this will happen and that will happen."
Then came Churchill Brothers. "I met Churchill [Alemao] and he said he was trying to get the team into the I-league," Brandon recollects. "He had told me before that I had to play for the team if it entered the I-League. He was always a close friend of my dad's. After a few days he said it is almost confirmed. That's when I decided to play for Churchill."
Brandon went into the season prepared. "The good thing was I got to train with FC Goa (before the season). So I had rehab and preseason training. Training under Zico was always like a dream for me. I trained with them for two months and everything fell into place."
Not so for his new team, though; after losing the first three games of the season, it was all going downhill for Churchill just 10 days into the season. They were bottom of the league mid-way into the season before Derrick Pereira took over as manager from Alfred Fernandes. A seasoned coach with the knowledge of Goan football on his fingertips, he was just right medicine for Churchill's wounds. In Derrick's first game in-charge, Churchill scored 4, but lost 5-4. Next game, a 3-0 win.
"When Derrick came, with his experience and with his plan we won a game. From then on we were just flying," Brandon says. Churchill were unbeaten in six matches after Derrick's first game - including wins against Mohun Bagan and East Bengal.
"Since he came the whole atmosphere changed in the team. That (his appointment) was the turning point. We were together and we were closer. Whenever we played, we played as a team."
With an injury-free season under his belt, Brandon is positive looking ahead. His future at present is in India, but just like any footballer, his European dreams are still intact.
"I'm still young, I still dream about it. If I have the chance to play abroad, I will go for it. But it won't just happen. I'll have to have a good season in India and then I can take it from there. I'm just thinking now to play this Federation Cup and go for the ISL. I will play in the ISL and try to do my best. Anything can happen, you don't know what the future holds."
Brandon says Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, the Indian national team captain, has been at Norweigan club Stabæk for three years and is a reminder of his dreams. "If he can do it, why can't I?" he asks.
After having trained with better facilities and standards than those in India all his life, Brandon had never looked at Indian football with hope. However, with the ISL he says the landscape is changing. "The hype" and the training facilities he says are biggest differences between the I-league and the ISL.
"When I was with Mumbai last season, we had everything, from kit boy to the head coach. In the I-League you sometimes don't have a proper ground to train on. They rent it out. I-league clubs, especially in Goa, rent grounds. That's how it works. Sometimes we (Churchill) train on one ground one day, another the next. In the ISL you have a training ground of your own. Everything is in place."
When asked about Indian footballers' practices in 2013, Brandon had said: "I see my old mates at Salgaocar and they're still eating vada-pav before games. It doesn't work like that."
What does he have to say now?
"I haven't seen it in a long time, it's changing."