“Football is not just a matter of life and death, I assure you it’s much more than that.”

– Former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly


When life throws you down and you have nothing to hold onto, football can become the only ray of hope. This is the extraordinary story of Saroj Koley, fondly known as Bulbul Da. Koley is the founder and head coach of Bulbul Football Coaching Centre (BFCC), which participates in the Liluah division of the Howrah edition of Hero ISL Children’s League.

BFCC is based in Tarkeshwar, which is located in the neighbouring Hooghly district. Tarkeshwar is 53 kilometres away from Liluah, the league venue. The squad of children and their parents assemble at 4 a.m. to undergo a two-hour train journey to Liluah. After the energy sapping journey, they compose themselves and get ready to play their first match at 9 a.m. The indomitable spirit of these players is credited to their coach Bulbul Da.

Bulbul Da has his own story to tell. A story of pain, overshadowed by grit, determination and love for the beautiful game.

He himself has never plied his trade at a professional/semi-professional level, having only played amateur local level football. He used to witness his brother and other people in his locality play football. With a keen eye to learn, Bulbul gradually learned various aspects of the game.

Bulbul started his football coaching career 11 years ago, in 2008. When every Sunday people used to gather at the local Taraknath temple, Bulbul persuaded some kids and started giving them basic football coaching. The children who used to train under him, were themselves from the lower strata of the society. He convinced their parents to allow them to play football. Witnessing the fire in his belly and never-say-die attitude, gradually more and more children started joining his coaching centre.

In 2011, Bulbul’s life took a fatal turn when his wife suffered brain stroke. But some ships don’t sink even during the storm. Bulbul, despite the circumstances and his poor financial condition, resumed his football coaching classes. Now, he has children enrolled in his coaching centre who come from about 15 kilometres away.

The dedication and commitment shown by his players during the Hero ISL Children’s League matches is unparalleled. The players spend every second on the pitch, fighting like hungry lions. Scorelines reading 15-0, 20-0 in favour of BFCC has become a regular feature for the U10, U12 teams.

“I don’t know about anything other than football in my life. The Indian Super League (ISL) is a dream for me. The planning of the Hero ISL Children’s League is wonderful. Earlier I used to think that children should start playing football when they are 12 or 14 years old, now because of Hero ISL Children’s League even 6 year old kids are playing football. This project is unbelievable. It’s a great opportunity for the kids playing under the ISL banner at such a young age. They are thoroughly enjoying this experience,” utters Bulbul.

The 50-year-old recently completed his All India Football Federation (AIFF) ‘D’ license, after much needed financial help from various people in the society. Seeing players like Kumar Ray and Soham Ali firing on all cylinders in the Hero ISL Children’s League, lights up the eyes of Bulbul. He now has ambitions of attaining his ‘C’ license but nothing will make the master more proud than one of his apprentice going onto play in the Indian Super League some day.