Vinit Rai: Not getting chances to play was my biggest challenge

Among the many bright sparks of the Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) 2019-20 season was a young Odisha FC team that looked to exceed expectations in their debut campaign. Josep Gombau’s boys looked well poised to make the top four but for an unexpected run of one win in their last five matches, ended their semi-final dreams.

Youngsters like Shubham Sarangi, Gaurav Bora, and Jerry Mawihmingthanga, to name a few, put in commendable performances winning the ISL Emerging Player of the Match and Hero of the Match for a total of 15 times combined.

Among that list was also midfielder Vinit Rai, who recorded the highest passing accuracy among the Under-23 stars in Hero ISL history. The 22-year-old joined Anant Tyagi on Episode 16 of Let’s Football Live and was the first Odisha FC player to do so.

“The biggest challenge before joining Delhi Dynamos FC was getting the breakthrough because as a young player. I never used to get so many chances to play, especially at the Tata Football Academy (TFA),” he said when asked about the competition he faced while coming through the grassroots.

“I know it's a process, but I think that was the biggest challenge for me. The only thing I kept doing is hard work. I always thought that someday it’s going to be my day and I just kept working,” he added.

During the session, the young midfielder from Assam spoke about his time at Kerala Blasters FC, playing with the other youngsters at Odisha, as well as the influence of the experienced brigade in their squad. Here are excerpts from their conversation:

Breakthrough season with Delhi Dynamos

Hero ISL 2016 was another special year for the Kochi-based club, which gave opportunities to many young guns like Farukh Choudhary and Vinit Rai as they reached the final for the second time in three seasons. After playing just two matches and clocking a total of 86 minutes, Vinit Rai moved to Delhi Dynamos FC the next season, and has been at the club since. After a dismal start to his debut campaign at the club, he established himself as a key cog for the capital based in India’s National Capital during the 2017-18 season.

“I had never lost so many matches continuously. I was young and first game we won I still remember it was 3-2. The motivation was high but suddenly we lost seven games in a row. To be honest, it is a horrible feeling. But the thing is that we were a very young team. Later we understood the tempo of the game and then as we played, we started adapting and in the last six games we were unbeaten. It was good but when unfortunately, we couldn't qualify for the playoffs,” Vinit Rai said while reminiscing about his second season in the tournament.

The 2019-20 Hero ISL season

After shifting base from Delhi ahead of the 2019-20 season, Odisha FC endured a topsy-turvy season mainly due to injuries to many key players. Giving his personal takeaways from the season, Vinit stayed positive about the final outcome of their campaign, saying, “I just want to look at the good things from the season - the way we performed, the way we all stayed together in the hard times. We stayed positive and we kept playing winning. The point I want to take is that when you win so many matches continuously and when you are in a good run, you know there’s a good chance to qualify for the playoffs so that feeling was just amazing. I want to keep it with myself and when the next season starts, we want to qualify for the playoffs.”

On playing with Jerry Mawihmingthanga and Lallianzuala Chhangte

Two players who are very close to Vinit at Odisha FC and Indian National Football team are Jerry and Chhangte. Jerry was key for Odisha’s attack, with his link-up with Aridane Santana proving extremely effective for the Bhubaneswar-based club.

"This season, I think Jerry has done a great job for the team. Coach Gombau liked to play from the wings, or build up from the back and then go to the wing and cross the ball for Aridane. And Wheno you have a striker like Aridane, who can score a goal if the ball reaches his head, it gets easier. I think the system that we played under head coach Josep Gombau really suited Jerry. It really changed his game this season," Vinit said about the winger who had stints at NorthEast United FC and Jamshedpur FC before his switch to Odisha FC.

Meanwhile, Chhangte, his teammate with the Indian national team, went on to play a crucial role in guiding Chennaiyin FC to a runners-up finish.

“The most important thing about him is that he is a very hardworking guy and he is really focused towards this career. Every day he makes it looks like he gets up with the motivation to get better. And by seeing him working it gives me that energy to work with him and push myself more,” Vinit gushed about Chhangte.

The foreign contingent at Odisha FC

Another key factor for Odisha’s dream debut season in the Hero ISL was the confidence instilled into the team by the foreign players, led by Marcos Tebar, “They always inspire us. Our captain Marcos Tebar is a true gentleman. If he sees that you're doing something wrong, he never says it front of anyone. He will talk to you separately. He always tries to help every one of us, Others like Xisco (Hernandez) and Carlos (Delgado), they all know what a young player needs to perform on the pitch. They always try to motivate us even on the pitch. Even if we make mistakes, they always cheer for us and always support us. That's the best thing.”

Adding to this, Vinit showered praises on Aridane Santana, who scored nine goals for the side before being ruled out due to an injury. “He always tried to motivate and even though he is 30 plus, if you see him working on the pitch, the work that he puts in is just unbelievable because he attacks and even comes back to defend. He made a few goal line saves as well. It's just amazing when your striker comes and saves your goal, you don't need anything better than that,” Vinit said while appreciating the work rate of the Spanish striker.

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