BY ATANU MITRA (@Atanu00 on Twitter)
Robin Singh has never had a stellar season in East Bengal colours. In the first three seasons at the Kolkata club, his 10 I-League goals earned the team only three incremental points while he struggled to establish himself as a first team regular. He isn't the most skillful player of the lot and his tendency to pick unnecessary bookings doesn't always go down well with fans. While Balwant Singh, Jeje Lalpekhlua, C.Sabeeth, C.K.Vineeth et al. have all broken the six-goal barrier in the league, he has never been able to score more than half a dozen goals in a single campaign.
The fact that he is still considered one of the best strikers of the country is because he brings something unique to the table. With a strong physique, he is ready to take on the foreign defenders and often wins aerial duels, a rare attribute among Indian attackers.
After the sun set on Bhaichung Bhutia’s illustrious career in 2012 and Jeje Lalpekhlua, who had scored three goals in the first five days of his international career back in 2011 got injured, the door of the national team opened for Robin Singh, who got the nod ahead of the likes of Mohammed Rafi and Baldeep Singh Jr. He was to be the next big star alongside Sunil Chhetri with former India coach Wim Koevermans backing him to come good.
However, he failed to live up to the billing. His rough patch epitomized India’s on-field struggles during the Dutchman’s reign and after scoring his first goal against Chinese Taipei in March 2013, it took him more than 30 months to hit the back of the net in the national colours again, when he struck the winner against Guam in a key Asian Cup qualifier in late 2015.
For an 888-day period spanning from 3rd March 2013 to 8th August 2015, no striker other than the skipper Sunil Chhetri had scored for the Blue Tigers. For the majority of these two and a half years, Robin Singh was the preferred number nine of the team.
While under Ashley Westwood, he gave a decent account of himself, his most prolific season came with Delhi Dynamos in the second edition of the Indian Super League (ISL). He scored last minute winners, looked incredibly sharp and most importantly, improved in holding up play.
Just when things began to fall in place, Robin suffered the first major injury of his career. He had already scored twice against Sri Lanka - his first brace in professional football since December 2010 - when he picked up a knee injury that would keep him out of first team action for the next 12 months.
During this period, Bengaluru FC, a club he had been part of since its very first season, made it to the final of the AFC Cup. Jeje Lalpekhlua resurrected his career, scoring goals at will and eventually cementing his place in Stephen Constantine’s set-up before being named as the captain in one of the matches.
The unfortunate injury has not only taken a year out from the peak of his career, it has also left him behind in the race of becoming a regular for the national team. However, Robin has scored two goals in as many matches against Bengaluru FC and Minerva Punjab in the I-League. He has looked more mobile though his passing from deep positions remains a concern for Trevor Morgan.
In Constantine’s first match in-charge back in March 2015, Robin was the second best player on the pitch after Chhetri, who had scored two goals that evening. With the AFC Asian Cup third round qualifiers coming up, one will not be surprised to see him make his way back to the squad once again, but for that he needs to keep his place in the first eleven of East Bengal ahead of new Australian striker Chris Payne and has to continue scoring goals.
The derby, on Sunday, will not only be a chance for him to make a strong case but also to look to overshadow Jeje Lalpekhlua - who is the best Indian number nine in the country on current form.
The towering forward has five goals in the Kolkata derby, more than any other Indian player in this decade and the fixture arrives at a perfect time for him to knock at the door of the national team again.