From impact sub at Hyderabad FC to a certain starter at ATK Mohun Bagan: Tracing the journey of Liston Colaco

Picture this: a Hero Indian Super League (ISL) fixture is tantalisingly poised. The game has ebbed and flown for three quarters as both teams are hoping that a moment of magic would decisively turn the game in their favour.

As expected, the sides make a few tweaks. Only one among the two, though, has the luxury of calling upon someone like Liston Colaco – a youngster with an enormous amount of potential but for whom consistency remains an issue.

He enters the fray and immediately stamps his authority on the contest. He bamboozles defenders, showcases his entire repertoire of skills and thumps a ball into the roof of the net from outside the box. Unsurprisingly, he garners all the plaudits and he is suddenly being talked about as the next big thing in Indian football.          

A game later, his club finds itself in a similar situation. The entire process repeats and all hopes are pinned on Colaco to pull something out of the hat. This time, though, nothing he tries comes off. He loses the ball on countless occasions and many begin to murmur if the previous performance was a false dawn.

To an extent, this entire episode transpired at Hyderabad FC for much of the 2020-21 season – a season where Colaco portrayed glimpses of extraordinary brilliance but was also unable to marry it with consistency.

A polished diamond?

In 2021-22, however, there has been a marked improvement. Not only has he switched over to the left flank and been one of ATK Mohun Bagan’s leading lights, he has played regularly enough for the Mariners to leave an imprint on the Hero ISL landscape – something that, according to former Bengaluru FC midfielder Erik Paartalu and Hero ISL expert Paul Masefield, has had a huge impact.

“He has taken the confidence of a few goals from last season and has gone into a better side. They are encouraging him all the time and it was Habas who decided to move him onto the left side. He has been given a good run of games to show his ability and that is how he has reached his levels. He is now starting to reach his full potential and that’s the most important thing for someone like Liston,” Masefield said.

“He is a starter at ATK Mohun Bagan. When you start, there is a different role to play. At Hyderabad, when he was coming off the bench, he was an impact player. You can see he was rushed. It felt like he wanted people to look at him and he wanted to show them what he could do. The new foreign rule has definitely helped him,” Paartalu added.

To provide further context, Colaco averaged 49.84 minutes per game in 2020-21. This season, that number has jumped up to 68.375. He has also mustered five goals and a solitary assist in nine appearances.

There has been an improvement in the end product he has been providing and according to Paartalu, it has come about because he has been made to watch videos of his performances and been educated on the mistakes he had been committing earlier.

“With young players, it is that consistency. At Hyderabad, he was inconsistent with his decision making. That comes down to maturity and also coaching. With young players, you can’t just put them on the pitch and praise them when they have a good performance. You have to educate them. So someone has definitely taken him aside and shown him his videos and talked to him about the decisions he has taken correctly and the ones where he hasn’t,” he opined.

Masefield, on the other hand, suggested that Colaco has become a more well-rounded player since arriving at ATK Mohun Bagan and that has directly contributed to better numbers.

“His role has slightly been tweaked in that he is playing on the left. He has also added more defensive work to his game. They are tracking back more and understanding the work ethic required to be an all-round solid player. He can cause all sorts of problems on the left and that is probably the biggest difference we have seen this season. We are seeing a more-rounded performance from him, which is absolutely great for the kid and for ATK Mohun Bagan because they are really polishing a diamond,” Masefield elaborated.

Sunil Chhetri replacement?

Such a rise to stardom, though, also has its fair share of caveats. With Colaco showing a clinical edge in front of goal, many Indian fans have begun salivating at the prospect of him functioning as a central striker and replacing Sunil Chhetri down the line.  

At this moment, however, he isn’t quite the end product and needs to be treated with the kind of care that he has been handled with so far. The change in position, in particular, was an area that Masefield and Paartalu said Liston had to guard against.

“I personally don’t think he can play through the middle. Liston for me, couldn’t play as a 10 or as a striker. Would you replace the likes of Boumous, Kauko and Krishna and play Liston there? Probably not. Liston is a winger and a true form winger. You don’t want to put square pegs in round holes,” Masefield quipped.  

“Personally, I think he is better on the wings. I don’t think he is capable of playing through the middle at this moment. He is not a one-two touch type player and have that awareness to play balls round the corner blindly, to sort of outsmart opponents and play that final pass. I don’t think we should think about playing him through the middle. I can see the idea and maybe you want to have a goalscorer through the middle in the Indian national team. For me, left side of a front three is probably the best position for him,” Paartalu commented.

What isn’t up for debate, though, is that Colaco has started inching towards where he would ideally want to be – at the top of the Hero ISL pile and producing goals and assists on a frequent basis.

There have been a few hiccups along the way, as it almost always happens with youngsters but it hasn’t deterred him from terrorising opposition defences and drawing collective gasps of awe.  

That his upward trajectory has perhaps attained a crescendo, just before the game against Hyderabad FC is poetic. Remember, it was at that club that Colaco told the rest of the Hero ISL that he meant business.

He didn’t do it very often, probably to Hyderabad FC’s detriment but that was largely because he was still rough round the edges. At ATK Mohun Bagan, it seems that the club is really polishing a diamond (in Masefield’s words). It is pretty hard to argue against it too.

As far as the moments of magic are concerned, it was evident that he was always capable of them. It is just that it has become more of a norm these days rather than being a glorious aberration.  That alone tells you how far he has come along since 2020-21 - both literally and metaphorically.    

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