Odisha FC have been the nearly-men of the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) having failed to make the knockout stages of the competition despite getting very close on a few occasions. 

Over the years, the club from Bhubaneswar has been a credit to the league for the positive brand of football they play. Another aspect that has helped Odisha FC gain admirers has been their commitment to invest in the youth and help nurture talents for Indian football. 

The Juggernauts have almost always sported a youthful team with exciting prospects in their ranks, but they have also been plagued by inconsistency.

However, the Hero ISL 2022-23, season, under the guidance of returning head coach Josep Gombau seems to be the season when Odisha FC finally become a force to be reckoned with at the top end of the table. 

With four wins in six matches, the Juggernauts are in sixth position but have a game in hand over the teams above them. Victory against Chennayin FC will propel them to third position, just one point behind league leaders Hyderabad FC. 

Repaying Odisha FC’s faith

One of the key reasons behind the team’s success has been the form snd performances of two long serving Indian players, Jerry Mawihmingthanga and Nandhakumar Sekar. 

Both players are playing their fourth season for Odisha FC and despite their inconsistencies over the last few years, the Juggernauts have backed them to the hilt. The two wingers, popularly known as Jerry and Nandha have 156 Hero ISL appearances between them. 

Nurtured under the masterful guidance of Gombau, Nandha and Jerry are now key members of an Odisha FC attack that has plenty of foreign attacking talent as well. But the Spaniard has been happy to play on with his two Indians in attack and keep the likes of Pedro Martin on the bench despite him scoring three goals this campaign. 

“When you have a foreign coach coming in, the Indian boys can work with somebody that actually wants to improve players. We can see that Gombau wants to improve the players he works with, so it is not a surprise that those two (Jerry and Nandha) are already killing it this year,” Hero ISL commentator and expert Erik Paartalu said. 

Gombau’s chosen ones

Jerry and Nandha have excelled in the wide roles that Gombau has handed them, scoring four goals between them. They have contributed to 40% of the goals that their team has scored and have caused defences all sorts of problems. 

“Jerry Mawihmingthanga and Nandhakumar Sekar are absolutely pivotal in the way Odisha FC play. He wants them to get on to the ball, to get out people to deliver into the box to create and set up chances. That is exactly what they are doing so far this season,” Hero ISL expert and commentator Paul Masefield said. 

Jerry has been especially impressive given how big a threat he has been to the opponents' goals scoring even with his head despite having a small frame. His understanding of Gombau’s system has been a key factor in his improvement over the years. 

“Jerry for such a small player and stature has grown tremendously. He gets goals, flying in at the back post and scoring headers. So, for me, Jerry is a threat to every team because he can beat you on the ground with his pace and he can get in behind and score with his head,” Paartalu noted. 

Paul Masefield was also in agreement with Paartalu over Jerry’s progress. 

“Jerry, he has been fantastic this year and he has added closing that back door and has started to score more goals with his head as well and killing space at the far post when the ball gets whipped into the dangerous areas,” he mentioned. 

Both Jerry and Nadha were on the scoresheet as Odisha FC completed an improbable 4-2 win in their last game away from home to East Bengal FC. The Juggernauts went 2-0 down, before scoring 4 unanswered goals at the Salt Lake Stadium. 

“The aspects that Jerry and Nandha have added over the years is just that consistency. They have got a coach that has taken them on board, coached them correctly, nurtured them and made them feel confident in the way they want to play, which is very important,” Paartalu noted. 

Getting to the next level

The duo, though, have yet to record an assist and that is something they will look to add to their game as the season progresses. In Diego Mauricio, they have a real target man inside the box and if they can start finding him a bit more consistently, then Odisha FC could become very hard to stop. 

“Diego Mauricio has not scored for a couple of weeks now, he is doing the dirty work for the team by being the focal point but Jerry and Nandha’s challenge now will to take him (Diego) to 10 goals this season and that will come down to mostly their work and they need to supply those crosses a bit earlier to find his feet in his box,” Paartalu opined. 

Odisha FC will hope Jerry and Nandha can sustain their early season form as they look to make it to the knockout stage for the first time in their history. They can take inspiration from Mumbai City FC’s Lallianzuala Chhangte and Bipin Singh who are now the joint highest-scoring Indians in the Hero ISL 2022-23 season. 

“I still think that Nandha is a bit inconsistent, a bit hot and cold. Nandha needs to add a bit of quality for the full 90 minutes, we have seen it in fits and starts but, we want to see it week in and week out. We have seen that increase in Lallianzuala Chhangte, there is no reason why Nandha cannot do the same,” Masefield said. 

Odisha FC will continue to back their flying wingers to take their team to greater heights this season and with Gombau at the helm, Jerry and Nandha might just become the deadly widemen that they have been threatening to become since the last few seasons.