NEROCA FC's Ronald Singh burst into prominence when he scored an injury time winner against Chennai City to seal the three points for his team last season in the I-League. Throughout the season, former NEROCA coach Gift Raikhan used him as an impact sub who would come on from the bench and tilt the game in his side's favour.
Also his fellow team-mate Ningthoujam Pritam made a name for himself by assisting a fair few goals with his inch-perfect crosses from the right flank. In the Super Cup, NEROCA was two down against Kerala Blasters when Raikhan called him into action in the 52nd minute. After regulation time, the scoreline was 3-2 in favour of the Orange Brigade with Pritam involved in two of those goals.
In Mohun Bagan, SK Faiaz was a breakout star along with midfielder Raynier Fernandes and fullbacks Ricky Lallawmawma and Arijit Bagui. Faiaz is a good crosser and with four assists and two goals to his name. He was a livewire for Sankar Lal Chakraborty's team in attack.
Arijit Bagui's work-rate was commendable. He often surged forward to help his team in attack but was rarely caught out of position in defence, even during quickfire opposition counter-attacks.
Of the names mentioned above, only Bagui has opted to continue with Bagan this season whereas the other three have chosen to move to various Indian Super League (ISL) clubs for fatter pay cheques. But if we go by the performance of Bagan in the Calcutta Football League (2018), Chakraborty would be relieved to find that he has already found adequate replacements who are ready to take up the mantle in the upcoming I-League campaign.
Pintu Mahata dazzled in the Kolkata derby against East Bengal as he not only found the net with a superb first-time volley, his darting runs from the left flank were a constant menace for the Red and Golds. Sourav Das is another player who has shown immense promise in the local league at the centre of the park and is certainly one of the youngsters to watch out for. Das could prove to be an invaluable asset for the Kolkata club in I-League as he has the capability to break-up opposition attacks which would allow the likes of Yuta Kinowaki more freedom to operate higher up the pitch.
Similarly, there has been a mass exodus of players from reigning champions Minerva Punjab as well. Most of their star performers from last season have jumped ship but the Ranjit Bajaj-owned side have roped in fresh young talent who are ready to fill in the vacant shoes.
All eyes will be on Hitova Ayemi, the youngster from Kohima who had been in fine form for Fateh Hyderabad in the 2nd Division. The 20-year-old forward scored six goals in six appearances and will look to replicate his form for the Warriors this season in the top division. He is a versatile player who can either play as a winger or as an attacking midfielder. He had played a crucial part for Ziekiezuo SC team who had won the first edition of Kohima Football League. He was fortunate enough to travel to South Korea for a training spree and on his return, he was snapped up by DSK Shivajians.
Dilli Ram Sanyasi has returned to Minerva Punjab this season after parting ways with the Chandigarh-based club in 2016 after guiding them to the second-placed finish in the I-League 2nd division. He is quick and has the potential to do significant damage on the flanks. He has been in good form in the Punjab Football League and even netted the winner in the finals against Punjab Police. In the pre-season game against Delhi Dynamos, he once again popped up at the right place and at the right time to score an equaliser deep into injury time.
If the modus operandi of the legacy clubs is to cherry-pick and sign the established stars, the clubs with financial constraints function differently. While Minerva Punjab boasts of a strong scouting network along with a robust grassroots programme, the North Eastern outfits primarily depend on their academy products to produce the goods at the national level.
Lajong's Samuel Lalmuanpuia grabbed eyeballs with his scintillating performance against East Bengal at home last season. Coach Alison Kharsyntiew will expect him to put his best foot forward, especially after Redeem Tlang opted to join ISL club NorthEast United.
Aizawl's very own F Lalremsanga is another player who will be itching to make his mark at the senior stage. He was the top Scorer of U18 Mizoram Premier League in 2016 and was even named by Luis Norton de Matos in the U-17 World Cup probables. Under Raikhan, he has already netted four times in the ongoing Mizoram Premier League (MPL) and has bagged two man of the match awards.
Isak Vanlalruatfela had an outstanding season with the Bengaluru U-18 team as he scored six goals last year. He has carried on his fine form in MPL as well and has made the right-wing position his own. He has pace to burn and is not afraid to have a crack at goal after cutting in from the wide areas.
Each season, a host of exciting talent comes to the spotlight after putting in impressive shifts in the I-League. If the likes of Sk Faiaz, Redeem Tlang were the stars of last season, another set of talented prodigies are raring to prove their mettle this season.