In the 2-0 win over Mumbai City FC in the Maharashtra derby, FC Pune City had three Indian players of age 22 and below in their starting XI while another four sat on the bench.
It was not as if Pune didn’t have anything to play for, for this was a Stallions’ side punching in the top half of the table with the play-off berth at stake. Trusting and grooming young talent has been a theme with Ranko Popovic since the very start of the Indian Super League (ISL) season.
Six youngsters – Sarthak Golui, Vishal Kaith, Sahil Panwar, Rohit Kumar, Aashique Kuruniyan and Isaac Vanmalsawma, have all been a core part of Pune’s rise to the second spot in the table after 15 games
One would think Popovic is on a mission to build the next Indian national team himself with the opportunities he has provided to the young players. The Serbian himself confirmed his school of thought post the 2-0 victory over Mumbai. A lot of the credit must also go to Pradhyum Reddy, who is the Head of Football at the club, for recruiting these young talent.
"We want to make most players possible for Indian national team and make the league stronger," Popovic had said.
Having come up through the academy, 18-year-old left-back Sahil was finally given his ISL debut in December last year against Chennaiyin FC. Since then, he has gone on to make six appearances for Pune. Similarly, Sarthak had made only two appearances for Mohun Bagan in the I-League before his loan move to the ISL outfit. The 20-year-old right-back has since made eleven appearances already in his maiden season with the club and has garnered three assists during this time too. Interestingly, he was deployed as a right winger against Mumbai City FC and he provided the cross for Raju Gaikwad's own goal.
21-year-old midfielder Rohit Kumar has been a vital member of Pune’s campaign this season, underlined by the fact that he has scored two goals in his 10 appearances already. The former India U19 midfielder was hardly a known quantity before his transfer to Pune, having just had one season with DSK Shivajians in the I-League prior to his ISL move.
Another young midfielder who has prospered under Popovic’s reign is former Shillong Lajong player Isaac who has featured eight times for Pune this season. Though he was already gathering some attention in his stint with Lajong, the fact that he has been trusted to do a job in midfield in his maiden ISL season speaks volumes.
Then there is another academy product in Aashique Kuruniyan. The 20-year-old forward was in sparkling form in the 5-0 rout of NorthEast United towards the end of December as he banged in a goal while also collecting an assist. The Kerala-born youngster has featured six times despite the abundance of riches in Pune’s attack in the form of Marcelinho and Emiliano Alfaro.
Lastly, there is custodian Vishal Kaith who has been a rock for the Stallions this season between the sticks. In the fringes of the squad last year where he failed to make a single appearance, Kaith is now the mainstay goalkeeper of an ISL side at the tender age of 21.
While blooding youngsters is not unique to Pune in the ISL, it is the enormous faith and trust the side puts on the numerous young shoulders that is heartwarming. It is the fact that the Maharashtra club is having it’s best-ever campaign in its history in the ISL with a core group of youngsters who are all vital cogs in the side.
One look at the Serbian manager or any of his post-match outbursts at the officials will let you know that he does not take any prisoners. Yet the inexperienced youngsters have not only survived under his tenure, they have thrived.
It is not as if the youngsters have been given a free reign and been thrown into the deep end with mistakes expected of them. On the contrary, they have been pushed by the Serbian and his coaching staff to get the best out of them.
“We are here to push but they must do things from their end too in order to get the final product. We can do things to make things beautiful in Indian football but players have to take steps too. For that, confidence is also important, we give them that too,” Popovic had stated after the previous match.
Elsewhere, Delhi Dynamos’ Miguel Angel Portugal is another who has entrusted many young Indian players in his squad such as Vinit Rai, Jayananda Singh, Nandha Kumar, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Sajid Dhot and others. Their campaign however, was all but over in December itself which has afforded the Spaniard the luxury of not having to chase any prize.
Pune though, are chasing their maiden ISL triumph. Whether they win or not remains to be seen, but what is definite is that Indian football will only gain from what they have already achieved with the youngsters this season.