Manpreet Singh has earned a reputation as a reliable central midfielder in the Indian team. Having played more than 150 international matches, the 24-year-old Olympian from Mithapur, Jalandhar, has no big ambitions other than doing the best for his team.
In an interview with Sportstar , Manpreet speaks about his tough childhood and playing with his idol Sardar Singh. He also underlines the need for laying artificial turfs in every nook and corner of all villages.
Question: How did you take up hockey as a career?
Answer: I started playing hockey when I was 10 years old, because my two elder brothers played hockey. They played up to city level. I was the youngest and so the favourite kid at home. So, my mom never allowed me to play hockey because she thought I would get injured. My brother had injured his nose. My mom got scared. She kept saying, ‘I don’t want you to get hurt.’
Seeing them (my brothers) get a lot of money playing hockey and winning trophies, I took a fascination for the sport. I am from Mithapur, the village from where Pargat Singh hailed. I wanted to be like him; he was my role model.
One day, my mother locked me inside a room and said ‘Don’t go to the K. P. Stadium’. But somehow, I escaped and ran to the ground. When I went there, my brother told me not to play. The coach, however, said, ‘Let him try. If he is interested, why not?’
Thereafter, I went to the Surjit Singh Academy in Jalandhar. My journey started from there. I had a difficult life growing up. My father, who was a farmer, was the sole breadwinner. Thanks to hockey, we have overcome all the difficulties.
Since the former Indian hockey star, Pargat Singh, too hailed from Mithapur, did you meet him any time?
I met Pargat quite a few times. He gave me plenty of tips on how to perform on and off the field. Basically, he told me to give my 100 per cent all the time.
How was the atmosphere at the Surjit Singh Academy?
Jugraj Singh and Kawalpreet Singh used to come to the Academy. I saw them play and got inspired. I was 14 years old. Speaking to them, I learnt a lot.
Tell us about your debut for the Indian team.
I made my Under-18 debut for India in the Asia Cup in Myanmar. I was the captain of the team. We lost early in the tournament. Later, I was selected to play in the first Asian Champions Trophy in China in 2011, which was my senior international debut.
Do you think you have cemented your place in the Indian team?
I am not thinking on those lines. I always like to give my 100 per cent. Let’s see how things go. I would like to play in one more Olympics. I want to give my best every time I play.
How was it playing with your idol Sardar Singh?
I learnt a lot playing with him. It was a great experience playing with a legend like him. I always discuss hockey with Sardar — things like when he has the ball, where I should go and where I should be.
In what way has head coach Roelant Oltmans’ stint influenced the team?
Oltmans put Sardar in the forward position in Rio Olympics. It was the first time he played in that position. It must have been difficult, because we needed him in the defence as well. But Sardar performed his role perfectly. It was the forwards who missed a lot of chances. In Rio, we played very well against the Netherlands and Germany. If we keep improving, we can get better. Oltmans has done wonders with the team. Most importantly, he has ensured that our fitness levels improved.
You have played under several foreign coaches. How has it been playing under different coaches with different styles?
I have played under Michael Nobbs, Terry Walsh, Paul van Ass and Oltmans. They always worked on our strengths. India has been good on counter-attacks and they focussed on that. They always looked at the positive side of Indian hockey. They all know that we are skilful players. They used us really well.
How was it with Tushar Khandekar, who is the assistant coach of the Indian team? How was it playing alongside him in the BPCL team in the Murugappa Gold Cup?
He is a very good coach. In the 2012 Olympics, I played with him. I have learnt a lot under him. When I started my career with the Indian team as a left-back, I used to discuss with Tushar how to receive the ball. Off the field, too, I have learnt a lot from him. In the BPCL team, he notes the structure of the squad and gives us the inputs.
What went wrong in the Rio Olympics? The team looked lethargic while playing out a draw with Canada. In the end, the draw was crucial, as India had to take on Belgium in the quarterfinals…
No, it’s not like that. We got plenty of chances in penalty corners, but luck was not on our side. That’s why we drew the game against Canada.
Do you think India had the best chance to win a medal in Rio given the composition of the other teams?
Yes. We lost our best chance. We played well against the Netherlands and Germany. We conceded a goal in the last minute against Germany, which I think was silly. But we did our best. Even Australia, one of the best teams in the word, lost in the quarterfinals. We have to move on. There is the Asian Games, the Asian Champions Trophy to focus on. We shouldn’t make the same mistakes.
Are you interested in drag flicking? You did it once…
I did it once during the Hockey World League Finals in Belgium, and I scored. At that time, Rupinderpal Singh was injured, so I tried. There are good PC specialists in the team and I have no intention of turning into one. I don’t think the team needs me in penalty corners.
Do you fancy your chances of becoming the captain of the Indian team?
No. According to Oltmans, all 11 players are captains. Each one has his own responsibility. A captain can’t do everything. On the field, everyone has to take responsibilities. We want to do well as a team. That is important. I am not thinking about captaincy.
Do you think hockey is losing its popularity?
For the hockey final in Rio, there was a good crowd. Even in the 2012 Olympics final, the attendance was good. In India, hockey should be played in the villages too. More turfs should be laid in the villages. It gives the players a head start.
Hockey is all about turfs. It will take time. Things will get better.
Who are your favourite Indian players?
Sardar Singh, Gurbaj Singh and Birendra Lakra. In fact, Lakra is my best friend in the team. The way he plays as a defender is cool; he has a sharp mind. I always miss him when he is not playing. Then, I like our captain and goalkeeper Sreejesh. He rescued us many times in Rio. We always feel that when Sreejesh is there, he will come up with a lot of saves.
What are your other interests?
My second love is football. I am always playing football on PlayStation. My favourite players are Cristiano Ronaldo and (David) Beckham.
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