The I-League 2017/18 table does not make pretty reading for those involved in the Indian Arrows. Off the 18 matches they played, they won just four and drew three. Their goal difference of -11 was the worst in the season, tied with Churchill Brothers. All this meant that the Arrows finished bottom of the table with two points lesser than the team above them.
But, according to midfielder Amarjit Singh Kiyam, a good finish in the league table was not what the team was playing for. “All our opponents were senior players so our top priority was to gain experience,” he said. It has been more than a year since Amarjit wore the captain’s armband for the first time in the FIFA U-17 World Cup, leading the Indian team out to face the USA in New Delhi. On Tuesday, the 17-year-old and his teammate Prabhsukhan Singh Gill, the player who replaced Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem as goalkeeper of the team, were part of a group of players who were in the national capital for the launch of the 2018/19 season of the I-League. The pair admitted that they were out of their depth in the top flight last season.
“When we played in the youth level, our opponents were not experienced. Playing against those who are 17 is one thing and facing opponents who are 24 or 25 is completely different because they are already playing I-League for the past few years. So they were more experienced and more mature than anyone we had faced before,” said Gill.
However, Gill also noted that Arrows were never blown away by the opposition. Their heaviest loss last season was against defending champions Aizawl FC when they ended up on the wrong side of a 3-0 scoreline. “Most of the results were 1-0 or 2-1, or we used to win,” said the goalkeeper. “Most of the goals that we conceded also were after the 80th minute. Until that point of the match, we used to hold them off well. After that maybe it was the lack of experience or concentration or we got tired and conceded.”
This year is quite different for the boys in blue. For starters, they have a new coach. Portuguese Luis Norton De Matos had stepped down and the Indian U-19 team in July citing personal reasons and Floyd Pinto has taken over. Amarjit said having an Indian coach helps with the communication. “He is more friendly and communication is much easier with him,” he said. “With foreign coaches, their culture is different, so we had a bit of doubt (before asking De Matos questions). But now with an Indian coach and we feel freer and this will be very useful in the future.”
“The future” is a commodity that is available in abundance to the Indian Arrows players, most of whom are yet to turn 18. Both Amarjit and Gill acknowledged this time and again on Tuesday. At the same time, Amarjit also said that making the most of what they have now important for them to, say, play for an Indian Super League side in the future. “Our first priority is that we need to do something in the I-League,” he said. “If we don’t do anything here we won’t get anything outside. If we perform well here, ISL coaches might think ‘this player can play in my team next year.’ If we give a coach that idea then we have a chance at making the playing XI (once we join the ISL team). The first target is hence to do well here, make history here, the rest will happen on its own.”
Four new players join the Arrows this season from the under-16 team that made waves in September by reaching the quarter-final of the AFC U-16 Championship in Malaysia. Goalkeeper Lalbiakhlua Jongte, leftback Gurkirat Singh and forwards Rohit Danu and Vikram Pratap Singh are the new joinees. Amarjit knows most of them from his days at the Chandigarh Football Academy and he had the simplest of explanations when asked how good they are in his assessment. “They are all good players and that is why they are part of the team.”
So what can be expected from the Arrows this season? “This time we will be more attacking, because we are playing for results,” said Amarjit. “This time we know what the league is about and so we are now looking to do better. The players are mentally ready and our target is to finish in the top five. It will be difficult but we are going to make it.”