When Kerala Blasters FC midfielder Sahal Abdul Samad stepped onto the field from the bench against NorthEast United FC, one could only imagine that he would be the one to take the game by the scruff of the neck and put it to bed by scoring two goals in quick succession.

With a cluster of yellow fans making their presence felt in the away front of the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium in Guwahati, one distinct name was heard among their exuberant chants and that was Kerala Blasters FC’s highest-capped player, Sahal Abdul Samad. The 25-year-old made his 77th Hero ISL appearance for the Kochi-based side, one more than their former player Sandesh Jhingan who previously held that record.

“I think they (KBFC supporters) would love for him to be an idol. They’d love for him to become one of their greatest players of all time who’ve worn the yellow shirt at Kerala Blasters because they can see his ability. He’s a young man who could turn into an absolute idol,” stated football commentator John Helm on the effect Sahal Abdul Samad has on the fans.

An occasion endeared by the team, the coaching staff, and the fans alike, the attacking midfielder burst onto the scene and delivered the much-needed goals, repaying the faith put in him by everyone, especially by head coach Ivan Vukomanovic, and getting his side back on the winning track after their three consecutive losses in the Hero ISL 2022-23.

A revelation over the years, the midfielder rose through the ranks and gradually fit into the playing XI after working his way through the reserve team of KBFC. He made his debut with the Blasters in the Hero ISL 2017-18 season but got his breakthrough in the following year as he earned the accolade for the Emerging Player of the Season.

Soon enough, he made his way into the hearts of the KBFC faithful and became a sensation among the supporters after exponentially growing as a person, as a player, as he progressively brought his attributes on the field in each passing season under several different coaches.

“Sahal Abdul Samad is like a demi-god in Kerala and it’s not gone to his head. Sahal can’t get on the streets in Kerala, he’d be mobbed, he’d be flocked. People love him,” said Khuri Irani, Hero ISL expert and TV presenter, on the fan following of the adored midfielder.

When you play for Kerala Blasters FC, you also become a part of one of the largest Hero ISL clubs in India, and rightly so, fans - not just from Kerala but also across the nation - kept expectations from Sahal and wanted the best out of him as he continuously threaded his way to reach the peak of his form.

“Sahal has certainly grown in expectations and I think that’s from coaches, from fans, from the TV people. There are a lot of expectations on the poster boy for the largest followed club in India,” said Erik Paartalu, former Bengaluru FC player and Hero ISL expert.

However, his emergence as a key player for the Tuskers didn’t appear overnight. The midfielder endured his way through six different coaches across five seasons, which affected his gametime, his style of play, and his position under different philosophies of the said coaches to be where he is today. It is safe to say that Sahal under exceeded his potential during this time and witnessed a slump in his numbers, and justifiably, it was not his fault either, given the constant influx of changes in the management.

“He had an off-season in the middle and we’re all guilty of starting to judge him,” Khuri continued, “Have we already seen the best of him? Is he even physical? Is he not going to live up the name?

The appointment of Ivan Vukomanovic as the head coach of the club ahead of the 2021-22 season was the outset of a fresh squad, unique playing style of football, and a fitting team structure including the scouting and recruitment network alongside Karolis Skinkys as the sporting director.

What followed was the implementation of Vukomanovic’s philosophy of football into the new team that saw them reach their third-ever Hero ISL final in which Sahal played his best-ever season until date. He netted six goals and provided one assist in 21 matches, which is his best-ever goal contributions tally across all seasons.

“He is actually becoming more mature, he has become more mature. He’s not the (young) talent anymore, he’s kind of a responsible person and a player now who is one of the best players in India,” said Ivan Vukomanovic, head coach of Kerala Blasters FC.

Sahal might not be the prolific player who will be involved in all the goals but over time, the midfielder has upped his game by proving to be an impactful player on club level as well as on the national level. His crucial goals against Mumbai City FC in the league stage and against Jamshedpur FC in the semi-finals and a late match-winning goal against Afghanistan in the AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers are a testament to this fact.

“Now, he’s also beginning to show his strength in the game with his time in the national team that he’s not just a 60-70 minute player. He can last the entire game and give you that kind of performance and that output in the entire game. I think Ivan Vukomanovic has gotten the best out of him,” added Anant Tyagi, popular commentator and Hero ISL expert.

Having grown from strength to strength alongside multiple foreign and domestic players alike, Sahal has been sporadically used across several key attacking/midfield positions across the pitch. Moreover, he is known to offer productivity and is efficient in the final third irrespective of a particular position.

“He’s a very talented guy. I have known him for a long time now, I think since his first season (at Kerala Blasters FC). He’s an incredibly hard-working guy which is a plus point for the club and for Indian football,” quoted Jeakson Singh, Kerala Blasters FC’s midfield general.

“He can play in any offensive position, he can play as a winger, he can play as a number 10, he can play as a striker, and he’ll perform. As a coach, these kinds of things for me as a coach are important and you can count on Sahal all the time in the offensive compartment,” added Vukomanovic.

Being born into a family that has a history of sports, it was a question of picking out a sport rather than choosing his strata of life.

“My father was a volleyball player, and for me it was easy to choose the sport. They (my family) were really supportive and without them, I wouldn’t be here,” added Sahal on his journey of turning into a professional football player.

The previous season might have been a huge stepping-stone for the midfielder. However, at the age of 25, he has shown that he is brimmed with hard work and determination not just in terms of scoring goals but also to be capable of playing across various positions and different styles and be effective. Having made several headlines, the starlet still has to go a long way and is bound to achieve greatness.