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In Kashmir, football is a pure passion

The long-term aim of Real Kashmir FC remains to bring forth more local players to the fore, and give them a platform to shine

It was around two-and-a-half seasons back that Real Kashmir Football Club, a team from the snow-clad Himalayan mountain range earned promotion to the I-League. Since then, the club has gone on to take Indian football forward together in a region where football has “brought people closer”.

The Snow Leopards’ Scottish head coach David Robertson has been with the club since its time in the Second Division League and has been an integral part of the journey that has turned the TRC Ground in Srinagar into a cauldron feared by the opposition. Now in his fourth season at the club, gaffer Robertson feels that he owes it to the people of Kashmir to come back.

“I’ve had a few other offers over the years, but I just feel that I owe it to the people of Kashmir and everyone associated with the club, to come back and continue the work,” Robertson said to I-League.org. “I’m not doing this for the financial gains nor am I using this as a stepping stone. I want to make an impact. Every time I go back home, I look forward to coming back here. I’m glad I did this.”

“When I first came to Kashmir, Lonestar Kashmir were the more popular club and we would attract only around maybe 200 spectators to our games in the Second Division. The spectators were mostly men and it was more of going out in the afternoon to watch a bit of football,” Robertson stated.

“But things really started to grow once we made it to the Hero I-League. I remember when I had first taken over back in the Second Division, we barely had any infrastructure and to see the club grow from that to the professional unit that it is now, is immense,” he further stated.

The Snow Leopards have left such days far behind, attracting thousands to the stands, with queues for the matchday tickets stretching for almost a kilometre.

“Nowadays you can see people from so many walks of life thronging into the stadium. Football has really brought people together,” he continued. “You not only have men and women, but you also get to see grandparents and grandchildren coming to the stands and it’s amazing how football has brought them all together. It has been nothing short of a fairytale.”

“I’ve played and coached at so many places, but the atmosphere in Kashmir is unique. In places like the USA, it’s more of a case of putting on the jersey and pretending that you support the team,” stated Robertson. “Here in Kashmir, it’s pure passion.”

While the Snow Leopards have certainly left their footprints on the icy peaks of the Himalayas, it has been a bit of a different experience for the Robertson family on the personal front.

As the coach himself describes, he had a “comfortable lifestyle” back in the USA with his family, before he decided to take up the job at Real Kashmir in January 2017.

“My wife was initially disgusted at my decision when I decided to leave my comfortable lifestyle behind and hop on a plane to Kashmir. But I think looking back now, everyone realises how big a part of my life this has become to my family and me,” said the Kashmir gaffer.

“To see the club grow from obscurity to being even known in places like the UK or Scotland is a different experience. I do realise that it will probably end someday as all football jobs do, but I would like to believe that it has made me a better person,” Robertson averred.

“I think I was way more materialistic back when I was living in the UK or USA. But you get a perspective on what’s important in life. Just looking at the backgrounds of some of the players that have played and are playing at the club, is a humbling experience,” he continued.

It is this humbling experience that keeps not only the gaffer but also his son Mason Robertson coming back to the Kashmir valley year in, year out. Mason, who has been a key player for Real Kashmir over the seasons in the I-League, has not only helped his club gain the results but also given a sense of stability to his father.

“Nowadays, we are here for eight months at a time, and it would have been difficult to do this season after season without having Mason here as well. It’s funny because sometimes we go for days when we don’t see each other apart from training,” laughed David Robertson. “Most of the times he’s just playing video games with some of the other lads. But it’s just knowing that he’s there just around the corner, especially around Christmas time — that helps.”

While the club surges forward, currently taking part in the 2020-21 I-League season, the long-term aim of Real Kashmir remains to bring forth more local players to the fore, and give them a platform to shine.

Robertson believes that such opportunities would also bring hope to the people of Kashmir.

“When I first came to Kashmir, there was not much there. Once you are done with your day’s work, there’s not much to do in the evenings. But Real Kashmir has given something to the people. Every state or two needs a club that people follow, and that kids want to play for,” he said.

“We eventually want to have a lot of Kashmiri youth in the team. Currently, clubs like Aizawl, NEROCA and TRAU have a lot of local players. That is what we want to do in the long term. It just gives more hope to the people in Kashmir. We’ve seen Danish (Farooq) grow so much as a crowd-favourite in the last few years. Our aim is to produce many more Danishes over the years,” said the 52-year-old.

While the current season is being played without any fans in the stands, Robertson feels that the New Normal will increase the appreciation that people have for the beautiful game.

“I’ve noticed this with the players. When they returned to training after 8-9 months away, they all had a smile on their faces. They had a new appreciation for things they were previously taking for granted,” explained Robertson. “I think it will be the same for the fans. It is sad that our fans are not there in the stands but we always play for the people of Kashmir. This club belongs to them. These are difficult times, but once things open up, the fans will also appreciate the game even more.”