Extra Time with Leeza Mangaldas: The Most Impressive Young Indian Players in Hero ISL 5
Follow pitch-side reporter Leeza Mangaldas as she takes you behind the scenes this Hero ISL season. New posts every week exclusively on indiansuperleague.com. Connect with Leeza on Instagram or Twitter at @leezamangaldas.
One of the most exciting parts about being associated with the Hero ISL over the past 4 seasons has been the opportunity to witness first-hand the emergence and evolution of young Indian stars on the pitch.
So, as we approach the business end of Season 5, this week, I asked my favourite experts Paul Masefield, Anant Tyagi, and Russell Osman to chime in on the young talent that has most impressed this season.
Here’s the list we came up with (in no particular order):
The 21-year-old winger from Mizoram has been Delhi Dynamos’ brightest spark this season, and despite the fact that the team has struggled, he’s proven himself to be one of the most promising Indian youngsters in the ISL. Chhangte’s potential has been evident since he was a teenager: Before making his Hero ISL debut, he trained at Liverpool’s youth academy at Kirkby in the spring of 2016 after impressing the youth coaches at DSK Shivajians’ LFC Academy in Pune.
Anant, Mase, and Russ were full of praise for Chhangte, unanimously agreeing that he deserves a place in the national team. “He’s definitely one of the best young players we have,” said Russell. “He has wonderful pace, and just needs to work on his composure in front of goal—if he works hard at his game now, he could have a great career for the next 10-15 years.”
Another young winger who has long impressed with his blistering pace is of course, 22-year-old Manipur-born Udanta Singh. He began his career at the Tata Football Academy but was soon picked up by Bengaluru FC who even sent him on a training stint to English club Oxford United in 2015. At Bengaluru, he’s rightfully earned the nickname “Flash” for his fantastic pace and has also been an asset to the national team. Last year, in a crucial Asian Cup qualifier against Myanmar, Udanta—brought on as a substitute—set up Sunil Chhetri for the only goal that was scored in the game.
“Udanta can give any opposition a problem,” Russell said. “Imagine Chhangte and Udanta together in the national team—what a threat those two would be together!” Anant agreed wholeheartedly. “In fact, Chhangte and Udanta have such quick feet that sometimes their legs can go faster than their minds, in stark contrast to the old adage,” he added. “Once their decision-making in the 18-yard box improves, they could be truly lethal providers and goal scorers”
After establishing himself as a hero among the Chennai City FC faithful in his home state, skilful 24-year-old midfielder Michael Soosairaj sure has made his presence felt at Jamshedpur FC this season.
“Soosairaj has lit up the ISL this season. His goals have been pivotal in putting Jamshedpur in contention,” said Mase. Anant was emphatic in his agreement: “Soosairaj should be in the national team. Period.” he said. “The second half of the UAE game and the entire game against Bahrain was crying out for the likes of Chhangte and Soosai when they were probably watching on their TVs in India. He needs to be careful not to get frustrated about not breaking into the national team yet. He mustn’t push himself into another injury. He’s a vital player for the future of any club and country.”
Chennaiyin FC’s young central midfielder Anirudh Thapa has been turning heads ever since he broke into the first team at Chennayin FC. In the spring of 2016, the youngster from Dehradun was one of four players selected by Chennaiyin FC to join French Ligue 2 side Metz on a short training stint. He then went on to become a vital cog in the Chennai squad that won the ISL last season.
“It was already clear last season that he’s a bright spark, but at just 21, Thapa has shown remarkable maturity in his games for Chennaiyin FC even when all around him things have been going wrong for the club this season—and he’s had some strong performances for the national team,” said Russell. “He has a very good touch on the ball and passes it really well—a bit more physicality about his game would make him stand out even more.”
FC Goa’s 24-year-old local lad Brandon Fernandes joined the team last season and quickly became one of their most impactful young playmakers. As a teenager, after playing for the state’s youth teams, he trained at the ASD Football Academy in Cape Town, South Africa and—albeit unsuccessfully— even had trials with Sunderland, Leicester City, and Reading.
According to Anant, Brandon is “a highly potent talent yet to fully realise his potential.” He explained: “Chhangte for example, has benefited from being a clear leader in terms of attacking options for Delhi—but it's not easy when you have the wealth of riches up front like FC Goa do. Coro, Boumous and Bedia have made Brandon better but I feel we have only seen 60% of what he can offer. Scary how good he will be when the other 40% is realized.”
Mumbai City FC’s 23-year-old left-back Subhasish Bose has been a solid presence at the back all season. Last time around he proved himself as a vital part of Albert Roca’s Bengaluru squad alongside teammate Rahul Bheke, and this season he has continued to impress at his new home. The Kolkata-born defender even played every minute of India’s Asia Cup campaign.
“For me he’s the player who has developed the most over the past 18 months,” explained Mase. “His three appearances in the AFC Cup show just how far he has come.”
Sahal Abdul Samad
Kerala Blasters’ 21-year-old local lad Sahal Abdul Samad has really looked the part in the middle of the park despite the inconsistencies his team has been through this season. He and his teammate Dheeraj Singh are the silver linings of an otherwise disappointing season for Kerala.
“He’s the most promising young midfielder in the country in my opinion,” said Mase. “In a more successful team I feel he would really shine bright, he’s energetic and powerful, runs with the ball really well and has great balance when doing so. He has lots more to offer than we have seen yet,” agreed Russell.
21-year-old Nishu Kumar has been making a name for himself not only at Bengaluru FC but also at the international level. The Muzaffarnagar-born defender joined the Blues over three years ago and worked extremely hard to earn his place in the starting XI. He made his senior international debut against Jordan in November last year, scoring India’s solitary goal in the match, (which they unfortunately lost 2-1).
“Nishu has the ability to be an excellent defender as well as a threat going forward in attack,” Russell said. “He needs to just concentrate on the importance of decision-making—because what makes a good player great is the ability to make the right decisions most of the time.”
FC Pune City’s rising star Ashique Kuruniyan is already a regular in the international set up at just 21 years old. The Kerala-born winger became part of FC Pune City’s youth academy in 2016 and made an immediate impression as the most promising player in his batch. He was thus selected to train in Spain for a year and sent on loan to Villarreal C. Unfortunately, a hamstring injury brought him back just four months in, and while the recovery was tough, Ashique rose to the challenge. He’s been a very bright spark for FC Pune City in the ISL over the past two seasons.
“While Ashique is still a little raw, his quality from the wings is up there with the best of them in India,” said Mase. “He’s an attacking young player with fabulous potential,” agreed Russell. “He’s very quick and direct in his play, he just needs to add more composure and quality when in the final third.”
Young Dheeraj Singh stole headlines with his acrobatic saves and long throws while playing for India in the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup. If it weren't for him, the score line in each of India's three matches would have likely resembled a tennis match. Before he joined the Blasters, Dheeraj was offered a contract by Scottish club Motherwell FC, but was unfortunately unable to take up the opportunity due to a technicality in the rules: to play in the UK, one's home nation needs to be ranked 70 or less.
This season despite the fact that the Blasters have struggled, the 18-year-old lad from Manipur has lived up to his reputation as a highly skilful and athletic young keeper. “Dheeraj can really command his box and looks like a player with a very bright future to me,” said Mase. “He is still very young for a goalkeeper—he could have the next two decades with the national team.”
19-year-old Sahil Panwar of FC Pune City was discovered by Pune FC while he was in college in 2014. Their youth set up was then acquired by FC Pune City, where Sahil trained till he was promoted to the first team squad in late 2017. The Dehradun-born teenager captained India during the 2017 SAFF U-18 Championship and last year he was part of the India U-20 national team at the COTIF cup in Spain.
“He’s a very good prospect with bags of potential,” said Russell. “He’s quick, strong and appears to be mentally tough. Definitely one for the future.”
What pleased me most about my discussion with Mase, Anant, and Russell was the fact that our list just kept on going. We could have proceeded to extol the virtues of several more youngsters—for example, the likes of Vinit Rai, Lalthathanga Kwalhring, Sarthak Golui and others have also had some very bright moments—and that’s what’s truly exhilarating—the fact that the list is long. Because absolutely central to the ethos of the Hero ISL, and indeed, to the future of Indian football at large, is the growth and development of our young Indian footballers.
“I wait for the day when Subhasish will be the leader in defence, Thapa will pull strings in midfield and Udanta and Chhangte will be sprinting down the flanks for the national team,” Anant closed. “Not far away that day.”