The first attempt with the Pailan Arrows lasted only three years before coming to an abrupt halt after the main sponsor pulled out. This time around, the governing body has promised its complete support in a continuation of their efforts towards hosting the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in India.
Luis Norton de Matos has been provided the license to carry on the work he has undertaken with India’s most talented young footballers since March this year. The idea to allow the select group to continue developing together as a unit for the foreseeable future sounds good on paper as only good things for the future of Indian football can come of it.
Hence, when Matos and band of teenagers were pitted amongst a sea of seasoned veterans and overseas players in the I-League, results were never going to be of primary importance. An upward rising development curve was what was most desired from the Portuguese manager, much as it was in the World Cup.
The Arrows, in fact, started the season in fine fashion with a 3-0 thrashing of Chennai City FC at Bambolim in Goa. After failing to light it up at the World Cup, forward Aniket Jadhav found some form with a well-taken brace.
Since then, the Arrows have suffered three defeats on the bounce before registering their second win of the campaign with a 3-0 dismantling of 10-man Shillong Lajong.
Two of those three losses have come against Minerva Punjab, who currently sit at the second position in the standings, level on point with leaders East Bengal. Against Minerva, the Arrows were slightly handicapped due to not being allowed to field the trio of Jeakson Singh, Anwar Ali and Nongdamba Naorem. The three, all vital cogs of Matos’ side, were rendered ineligible due to a clause in the loan agreement between AIFF and the parent club.
Their loss away at Ludhiana to Minerva was down to the individual brilliance of the Bhutanese striker Chencho Gyeltshen for it was a game where the youngsters had more than held their own.
In their 2-0 defeat to Gokulam Kerala at the Ambedkar stadium in Delhi, the Arrows showed fight and grit but lacked the cutting edge in the final third. It was also perhaps the only game where the defence has looked susceptible to set-plays.
Apart from the two goals conceded against the Kerala side, the Arrows have been spotless at the back when it comes to set pieces and credit for this goes to Anwar Ali and Jitendra Singh who are starting to form a promising partnership at the heart of the defence.
Dheeraj Singh has been his reliable self between the sticks and has pulled off some great saves in the matches so far. Sanjeev Stalin at left-back continues to be a threat with his set-pieces delivery.
In midfield, skipper Amarjit Singh Kiyam and Jeakson Singh have started to grow into the role as the matches have progressed and looked and against Lajong, the duo looked in complete control.
While rubbing shoulders with foreign opposition is nothing new to this squad, squaring up against seasoned professionals was something that was always going to be virgin territory for the Arrows.
They have more than lived up to that task with their speed and quick movement of the ball with minimum touches. Their individual brilliance was also on display in the win against Lajong where Naorem scored an early contender for the goal of the season with a brilliant solo run.
The Arrows made headlines for the right reasons once again in that match when Jitendra Singh became the youngest goal-scorer in the history of the league at 16 years, six months and 13 days.
One pleasing aspect of their play has been their willingness to press high up the pitch with the attackers showing some excellent work-rate. Trying to prevent teams to build from the back has been their modus operandi. At the back, Anwar and Jitendra have tried to maintain a high line so as to compress play in the middle of the pitch.
This positive approach to their football is what has stood out in their campaign despite their mixed bag of results and if they can persist with this approach, their efforts might start paying greater dividends as their experience in the league grows.
Hence when the Arrows line up against Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan on Friday, it will be interesting to see the group of teenagers attempt to carry out their positive brand of football in a sea of more experienced and physically much tougher foes.