After two matches of the 2018-19 Indian Super League (ISL), Sahal Abdul Samad has clocked more minutes (116) for Kerala Blasters than he managed for the entirety of last season (22).
It is not a coincidence that the 21-year-old midfielder from the district of Kannur in Kerala has started the first two matches for the team. It is a signal of a change in approach and preference for youth by the club, lead by the charismatic English coach David James.
David James has been stressing the importance of undertaking a long-term project at Blasters ever since he put pen to paper on a three-year-deal which in itself was an uncommon practice at ISL clubs. His comments about such broadminded plans would have usually been greeted with pontifical disdain.
But the former Liverpool goalkeeper, more than once since he took over the reins, has shown that he is not only willing to give youth a chance but also go in with a fewer number of foreign players so as to include more Indian players.
Coaches have come and gone at Blasters and everyone had their own plans for the team. The last one to grace the position of the head coach before James was none other than former Manchester United assistant coach Rene Meulensteen but his grand plans never really took off. The outcries to provide chances for local talent or even young Indians existed long before Meulensteen took charge.
James is a likeable character and he is acclimatized to Indian football, having served as a player-manager for the Yellow Army and driven them to the final in the first season of the league. When he took charge midway through the 2017-18 ISL season after Meulensteen was sacked, one player who benefitted the most was Prasanth Karuthadathkuni, another youngster who was waiting for his opportunity.
Sahal Samad was waiting for his big break. He was outstanding for Kerala Blasters 'B' in the I-League second division and deservedly earned a place in the first team squad for the new season.
To everyone's surprise, the youngster started the season opener against ATK, sending the likes of Zakeer Mundampara and Courage Pekuson to the bench. To the supporters' delight, he started the second game as well, against Mumbai City at home.
Talking at length about Sahal's inclusion, David James said, "Sahal started the game against ATK because what he did in pre-season was spot on. He has already featured more this season than he did last season. There is no magic involved in this.
"Sahal has a lot of ability, there is a lot more to come from him. Time is something that a lot of players can afford but they have to use it the right away. Age is not the requirement for selection. It is not the dictator, it is how you train and play.
"A conversation about Sahal and a lot of other younger players were what we had when I joined in January. He was selected for ATK game. He earned that position and it is a position that he has to keep. It is nice to start games but match-winners don't have to play 90 minutes. They arguably don't need to even score goals. They have a positive influence on the game."
The Kerala-born midfielder is fleet-footed and has plenty of tricks up his sleeve for use in tight areas. There were several 'wow' moments for the crowd in Kochi when he was on the ball against Mumbai.
"Sahal is wonderfully creative. He showed that against ATK. I can't tell him what to do with the ball. He is skilful. It was a tough game, it was a very demanding game for the players," his coach David James said after he delivered an impressive display in midfield against Mumbai City in Kochi.
The praise for Sahal is not just for his two appearances, that would not be fair. It is for the path he has traversed to earn a ticket to the first team. It is up to him to prove that he can keep his place as James has been always open with his stance - if a player does well in training, he stands a chance to take to the field.
Helping the youngster defensively in midfield is Nikola Krcmarevic who has settled into the team quickly. The Serbian has provided the screen for the youngster to roam forward when required.
"David James is a free coach. He is someone who tries to bring young talent to the forefront at Kerala Blasters. If we do well in training, he will definitely give us a chance to play. He is also very friendly with the players. We have the freedom to approach him," Sahal had told Goal before the season started rolling.
There is nothing more that will send the football-loving community in Kerala into an apogee of delirium than seeing a local lad climb up the ranks and establish himself as a top player. Kerala has been desperately seeking such talents but in Sahal, if he can focus on his objectives and keep working hard, they have a potential star.
Follow Nisanth V Easwar on Twitter - @niktheblue94