Don't judge the Indian Arrows by the points table
Remember Jeakson Singh, who rose high to meet a Sanjeev Stalin corner to score India first goal at the U-17 World Cup? Remember midfielder Rahul Kannoly and defender Anwar Ali, both of whom struck the woodwork during that tournament? Remember Dheeraj Singh's saves in goal?
Jeakson, Kannoly and Anwar are all part of the Indian Arrows in the I-League -- Dheeraj played the first two months before going to Scotland for trials with Motherwell's youth team. A 3-0 defeat to defending champions Aizawl FC on Friday effectively means Arrows could finish bottom of the 10-team league.
Four wins and 10 defeats might not seem like reason for cheer, but then the goalposts for this team are different. "We are not worried about placement," says coach Luis Norton De Matos. "We came with one purpose; to get experience. And we have proved Indian Arrows can play (with) the way we played."
The Arrows' second coming
The role of the Arrows project is the same as the one envisioned for the Pailan Arrows, the previous developmental squad comprising players from the U-19 and U-23 teams, which played in the I-League between 2010 and 2013.
The earlier Arrows squads didn't fare particularly well either -- the first finished ninth in a 14-team league, while the second and third Arrows squads finished 13th and 12th, respectively. The current team's winning average (23.52 percent) is only bettered by the first Arrows team of 2010-11, who did marginally better with seven wins in 26 games (26.92).
Bear in mind that the current Arrows team is younger than their older version -- 15 of the 21 players capped this season played in the U-17 World Cup, while the remaining six are from the U-19 batch of the same year.
"We thought I-League would be very difficult. When I was young, all our heroes played in the I-League," says Kannoly. "Playing in the World Cup gave us lot of confidence but we still knew it was a big step to take part in the I-League and also the ISL."
Learning from history
There was no such doubt in the mind of Arrows assistant coach Floyd Pinto.
"When the first Pailan Arrows side played, I too was in awe, seeing U-22 players in the I-League. But I realised it was possible for this current set of youngsters to succeed. They are very disciplined regarding training, diet and recovery. If we are able to put that in every youngster, be it 16, 17 or 18 years old, there is no fear in playing them in the I-League," he says.
A case in point was the team's preparation for a game on December 26 against Shillong Lajong, another team built predominantly of younger players. The Arrows won 3-0, a game best remembered for a wonder goal by striker Nongdamba Naorem.
"It was Christmas [the previous day] and none of us celebrated it. We knew we couldn't stay up late. We just wished each other. We only cared about the match. All the coaches and all the players just care about the match that we play now," says Naorem.
The will to fight
Yet to reach their physical peak, the young Arrows have had to work hard to hold their own against sides featuring up to five international players through their organisation.
"If you play with organisation, it is possible to play against players bigger than you. As long as you keep the ball away from them, it doesn't matter what the size of your opponents is," says Matos. "We lose almost all our (aerial) duels. If the field is not good we suffer even more because there we cannot play our passing game."
The constraints are even more apparent when it comes to fielding a starting eleven.
"For us it is the problem of recovering after games. If we play one match every week it is easier to play a steady team, but I can't do that. Almost always I have to change half my squad after each game," says Matos.
Of the 23 players who have put on an Arrows jersey at some point this season, only Kannoly and Stalin have featured in all games. "It is impossible to play the same eleven, especially for 17 and 19-year-olds. We can't depend on 11 or 13 players," says Pinto.
This meant that when first-choice goalkeeper Dheeraj left, reserve 'keeper Prabhsukhan Gill got the chance to step between the posts. After struggling initially, Gill has grown more assured, even managing two clean sheets. "Almost every single player has got game time barring one or two and by the end nearly every player would have played 90 minutes or more," says Pinto.
How to judge them
Pinto says the benchmark to clear would be that of the 2010 batch of the Arrows. That side finished with seven wins, but more crucially saw the emergence of current national team striker Jeje Lalpekhlua, who finished as the leading Indian goalscorer that season. Arrows teams in the past have given Indian football names like Raju Gaikwad, Alwyn George, Milan Singh, Pritam Kotal, Narayan Das and Holicharan Narzary.
"It is only possible to comment about the actual purpose of the I-League in a few years' time when you see how many players are in the national team," he says.
It remains to be seen how sustainable the Arrows project is. Devoting a significant chunk of limited finances to a small group of teenagers is a gamble, but players and coaches expect they will make the best of the opportunity they have. "What this season has given them is a chance to become more mature on the ground. Quite a few of these boys could fit into any other I-league team or perhaps even the ISL," says Pinto.
Matos has set his sights higher. Both coaches have kept a three-year timeframe -- the period of most of the players' contracts with the AIFF -- in order to judge results.
"By then, these boys, having gained the experience of playing in the I-League, should be able to cope with teams such as Japan, Iran or Iraq," says Matos. "And it is not just about the AFC championships; maybe in time four to six players from here will be part of the senior national team. They might not win many matches but I think the big winner will be Indian football."