Odisha’s faith in youth bodes well for the future of Indian football

Newcomers in the 2019-20 Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) season, Odisha FC had a bright start last season, fighting for a place in the top four before finishing sixth. Ahead of last season, the club shifted base from Delhi to Bhubaneswar, with Josep Gombau inheriting a young and vibrant team. Despite a relatively inexperienced side, they put on some strong performances before suffering a dip in the latter half of the league, which allowed Mumbai City FC and Chennaiyin FC to pull ahead of them in the standings.

Under new head coach Stuart Baxter for the upcoming Hero ISL season, Odisha have been very proactive in the transfer market, roping in several young talents across every position on the field. Among the players signed by the club recently, only full-back George D’Souza and goalkeeper Ravi Kumar are above 25 years of age. On the club’s foundation day, we look at how their belief in youth can benefit Indian football while planting the seeds of success for the Bhubaneswar-based outfit.

Youngsters crucial to the team’s long-term success

“All I want to do is develop these kids. Because if they grow together, and they are their family, and then they don't want to leave each other, they are close…. I feel the guys I have gotten are really good. In the next three, four years if I get them going, they stay there and I'm winning,” Odisha FC president Mr. Rohan Sharma said in an episode of Let’s Football Live.

Among the youngsters who have been brought in by Odisha, many come with experience in professional football. While Kamalpreet Singh plied his trade for Hero I-League club East Bengal, Hendry Antonay and Saurabh Meher joined the club from Indian Arrows. Meanwhile, Paul Ramfangzauva and Isak Vanlalruatfela plied their trade for Aizawl FC, where both were regulars.

Although the Bhubaneswar-based club are building for the future with their several young acquisitions, their new head coach Baxter spoke of the need of managing their game time wisely. “The timing of who plays and who they play against, when to give them more time, when to give them less time, that’s the way you have to manage younger players,” he said in an exclusive interview with indiansuperleague.com.

Healthy competition for places

Crucial to Odisha’s performance last season were two youngsters in 23-year-old winger Jerry Mawihmingthanga and 20-year-old Shubham Sarangi. While Jerry managed five assists and two goals last season, he hopes to add to that tally by improving his finishing in the upcoming campaign. “Ahead of next season, I would like to improve my goal-scoring. I am certainly aware that I am not a complete footballer already,” the young winger said in an interview.

And Jerry will need to constantly be on top of his game in Hero ISL 2020-21 with the competition for places likely to be closer with the addition of Isak and Samuel Lalmuanpuia, to name a few. All the young guns in the team will be raring to impress their head coach, but Baxter hopes to use them wisely, “Unnecessary risks and foolish risks we will not take with our youngsters. What we will do is give them roles that they understand. We will ask them within those supporting walls (of our club) to express themselves. If we manage them properly, we will minimize those risks and we will make sure that the rewards can be substantial.”

Youth development beneficial for Indian football

In Baxter, Odisha have found a capable head coach with the experience of working with youth. Former head coach of England’s U-19, the 67-year-old knows how to get the best out of youngsters having enjoyed success with young players in the past and he’s eyeing at least a semi-finals appearance in his first season with Odisha.

“I want to take the team to the semi-finals definitely because the other positions are all the same. We want to play the semi-finals and after that, let’s see if we can win it. I have been in a situation like this where you have a young squad and you don’t expect to win because people say ‘kids will win you nothing’ and then they (the youngsters only) win the league (for you),” Baxter explained.

The exposure of these youngsters to the highest level of Indian football will also act as a huge benefit for the future of the sport in India. With most of the players on long-term deals, Odisha’s squad is only likely to grow stronger in the coming years and deliver on their promise. The likes of Isak, Jerry, Paul, Laishram Premjit Singh, Thoiba Singh, Vinit Rai and the versatile Sarangi come with lots of potential and have an opportunity to develop in the conducive environment that Odisha offers.

Only time will tell if all the youngsters in the club realise their potential, but the Bhubaneswar-based can be  proud of the strong foundation and stability they have provided for them, not just for the club’s benefits, but also for Indian football.

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