Leitir Mhic an Bhaird, a classic Gaelic village with a typical tongue-twisting name, is a tiny dot on the Irish map. Roughly a thousand people live in this picturesque place, which has one convenience shop, a petrol station, three pubs, and a Gaelic football team, Na Rossa.
Like most children who grew up there, Carl McHugh ended up playing for Rossa as well. Unlike many, however, he ended up making a career in football, the version that the majority of the world plays. After representing Ireland’s youth national teams, McHugh made a name playing for Bradford City and Plymouth in England, followed by another successful stint in the Scottish Premiership with Motherwell, whom he even captained.
His unexpected journey has now brought him to India. The 26-year-old made his debut for Kolkata side ATK against Kerala Blasters in the opening match of the new Indian Super League season in Kochi on Sunday. And he made an instant impact. The season was just six minutes old when the centre-back pushed forward and executed a brilliant first-time volley with his left foot from an Agustin García Iniguez cross to beat former Real Kashmir goalkeeper Bilal Khan.
With that goal, McHugh continued the tradition of foreign players scoring the opening goal in the ISL. But it was not enough for ATK to begin their campaign with a win. Kerala Blasters rode on Nigerian Bartholomew Ogbeche’s twin strikes, in the 30th and 45th minutes to pocket three points with a 2-1 win.
The victory was witnessed by 36,298 loud fans, most of them donning Kerala’s yellow jersey. What lacked, though, was a local flavour in Kerala’s line-up. There were three players from Kerala in India’s starting line-up against Bangladesh in the World Cup qualifier last week. On Sunday, there was just one Keralite in the first 11 of the Kerala Blasters – midfielderer Prasanth Karuthadathkuni (Kolkata had four Bengal players in their 11).
The drying talent pool in the region that has produced the likes of IM Vijayan and Jo Paul Ancheri is often lamented. But unless local players get a chance to play for their local team, it will be tough for them to climb the ladder.
A classic example is Michael Soosairaj. Had it not been for Chennai City, the midfielder might have been lost somewhere in the local leagues. Chennai’s emergence as an I-League force gave Soosairaj a platform, and he utilised this opportunity to find himself knocking on the India door.
It was, however, baffling to see Soosairaj, who has played in midfield throughout his career, play as a wing-back. Jayesh Rane was another player who played out of his regular position. They both looked out of their depth at times, and whether ATK coach Antonio Habas continues to persist with this strategy remains to be seen.
It is likely Habas will since that’s what generally happens to Indian players unless they are a rare talent. As is the case with Indian clubs, foreign players occupy all important positions – centre-backs, central midfielders and strikers – for both teams. In footballing jargon, it’s called the spine of the team.
Indians were played in wider roles, where it is tough to have a direct impact on the game. The lack of experience of playing in these positions in the league is seen when they turn up for the national team.
One understand a club coach’s predicament – in a result-oriented ecosystem, they will fill crucial positions with influential players and this trend is likely to continue for the rest of the season. Perhaps this will be a good time to have a re-look at the policy to have five foreign players starting a game, and reduce the number to give Indian players more opportunities because the young crop has shown some promise.
Waiting in the wings
One such example is Kerala’s Jeakson Singh. The scorer of India’s only goal at the 2017 under-17 World Cup made his ISL debut on Sunday. He, too, was not played in his regular position – he was operating as a withdrawn midfielder rather than a central defender, which he normally is.
He had a mixed outing, showing strength and courage to get into 50-50 challenges and not being afraid of getting on the ball, but the free-kick he conceded after a foul on Rane led to ATK’s only goal of the match.
Three other players from the under-17 World Cup squad, Rahul KP (Kerala) and ATK’s Dheeraj Singh and Komal Thatal, were named in the squad but did not manage playing time.