With an eye on the 2018 FIFA World Cup, AIFF launched an ambitious bid in 2010 which ultimately resulted in the creation of Indian Arrows club (formerly AIFF XI). It was decided that the squad would only consist of India U-21 players and the foreign players were barred from joining the club. Ambedkar Stadium in New Delhi was chosen as their home ground.
The onus of managing this young Indian brigade was handed over to Desmond Bulpin, who in the past has had successful stints with the likes of Tottenham Hotspur, Queens Park Rangers, Bristol Rovers and Bristol City (with Bob Houghton). The appointment of the former Philippines national coach was a well thought out decision made by the AIFF, as the Scotsman has had a history of identifying young talent. Some of his major finds include Peter Crouch and Ledley King.
Here TheHardTackle takes a look at how the 2010-11 season panned out for the young Indian Arrows outfit.
Captain Raju Gaekwad fighting it out with Tolgay
Before beginning their maiden journey in I-league, the Indian colts took part in the Federation cup where they were grouped together with JCT, Dempo and ONGC FC.
Although their inaugural Federation cup campaign ended at the group stage itself, the boys did manage to make an auspicious start to their club career with a solitary goal win over JCT FC in their first ever outing. They met the mighty Dempo SC in their penultimate match, where a brace from the Nigerian striker Ranti Martins was enough to keep Bulpin’s boys at bay from picking up back to back wins. In their must win final group encounter against ONGC, Jeje scored for Bulpin’s boys in the second half but his solitary strike was not enough to overcome Kailash Patil’s first half twin strikes.
Two successive defeats ultimately knocked them out of the competition but the young squad won over the hearts of the fans as they bowed out after putting on respectful performances against the big boys of Indian football.
With the disbanding of Mahindra United at the end of 2009-10 season, Indian Arrows got a direct entry into the top flight of I-league, much to the dismay of a number of state football Federations throughout the nation.
The season of I–league kicked off in the first week of December but the campaign for Indian Arrows began on a losing note as Chirag United handed them a 2-1 away loss. A string of spineless performances followed which saw them suffer a 0-4 drubbing at the hands of East Bengal and then against the eventual champions Salgoacar (0-5). As a result of these humiliating losses more fuel was added to the criticism surrounding the formation of Indian Arrows which was already doing the rounds in the national football-ing circuit from the day the club was born.
Although, the year ended on a bright note as they picked up victories in two successive home games against Air India and HAL with a identical scoreline of two goals to one. However their woeful away form continued in the New Year as well and they were humbled 6-0 by Churchill Brothers in Goa. While they had conceded 17 goals away from home in their first four away fixtures, Bulpin’s boys continued to impress at their home ground at Gurgaon.
They showed a lot of character after receiving knockout punches from the heavyweights of Indian football to salvage three draws at the Ambedkar Stadium, which kept their unbeaten home record intact till Viva Kerela snatched a win over them in round 23 of the competition.
With just three wins under their belt in the first three months, Indian Arrows were starring down the barrel of the gun. The turnaround happened in the month of March when the team traveled to Mumbai to take on the struggling Air India. Arrows came from a goal down to pick up their first away win of the season with an astonishing scoreline of five goals to two. Former Pune FC striker Jeje Lalpekhlua showcased exactly why he is considered the future of Indian football, as the Mizo striker went on to score four times in the match.
They continued on with their winning ways and managed to pick up another sensational 4-0 away victory over HAL SC with all four goals coming from different players.
Mid way through April the club had suffered three consecutive defeats, including an embarrassing 5-2 loss against the defending champions Dempo but got their campaign back on track with a close victory over Mumbai FC. Eventually they ended their first year in the top flight at 9th position after playing arguably their best game of the season against Mohun Bagan.
Best Match: India Arrows 5 – 4 Mohun Bagan
Indian Arrows hosted the mighty Mohun Bagan in the last round of the season, in a match which was considered as the David v/s Goliath encounter of Indian football. The Mariners were considered the outright favourites for the match. But no sane soul could have predicted what actually transpired during the ninety minutes. A nine goal fest which saw Bulpin’s team pick up a four goal advantage – thanks to a hattrick by Jeje and another goal by Shilton, within the first half an hour, knocked the wind out of the fans of Asia’s oldest club. Chidi scored a goal for the Bagan before the half time whistle blew, but the havoc created by the young strikers of Arrows had already sent Mohun Bagan in a tizzy.
Muritala Ali tried to script a comeback on the other side of the halftime and his brace brought them within touching distance of the U-21 team with the score reading 4-3 in favour of the hosts, with only 12 minutes of stipulated time left. But the young lads had other ideas as Jeje went on to score his fourth goal of the match just four minutes from time to tilt the match in the favour of his team. Muritala went on to complete his hat trick as well in the injury time but could not prevent Mohun Bagan from losing on the last day of the league campaign in a goal-scoring thriller.
Best Player: Jeje Lalpekhlua
There were some exceptional performances being put on display by these young lads through the course of the season, but without any shadow of a doubt Jeje Lalpekhlua walks away with the title of the best player of the squad.
He was instrumental in scripting the win over Air India, HAL and Bagan and also picked up two hat tricks – the most by any Indian in the league.
The twenty year old, also finished as the top scorer among Indians in the league and got a call from the national team for 2012 AFC Challenge Cup qualification tournament and scored 4 goals in three matches.
The other vital performers for Arrows were captain Raju Gaekwad, Deepak Devrani in defense, Shilton D’Silva, Lalrindika Ralte at midfield and Jagroop Singh under the woodwork.
Best Goal: Jeje Lalpekhlua
The fourth goal of the match against Mohun Bagan in Round-26 was a treat to the eyes. Jeje received the ball from Shilton D’Silva with his back towards the Mohun Bagan goal, turned 180 degrees while controlling the ball beautifully with his right foot, and then unleashed a pile-driver of a left footer to score an absolutely wonderful goal. It will remain etched in the memory of Indian football lovers for years to come.
Worst Performance: Indian Arrows 0 – 6 Churchill Brothers
Odafa Onyeka single handedly demolished the entire backline of Indian Arrows as Churchill brothers mauled the Indian u-21 squad by an emphatic scoreline of 6-0. He literally toyed with the defense of Indian Arrows and netted as many as five goals on his way to become the second highest goal scorer in the history of I-league with a century of goals.
The midfield and the backline could only stand in awe of the Nigerian as he went on a rampage. Nothing went in the way of the Bulpin’s boys, as they were left as the mere spectators on the field while the veteran striker went on a goal scoring spree. After scoring a brace in the first half the Nigerian went berserk twenty minutes from time and picked up a second half hat trick, leaving the young squad and its management shell shocked.
In their inaugural year the biggest task in front of the club was to prevent relegation, which many believed was a forgone conclusion due to the absence of foreign players in their ranks. In spite of facing criticism since the very beginning from almost every corner, even from within the AIFF and losing as many as eight players mid way through the season to injuries, chicken pox and exams, this club with an average age of only nineteen surprised everyone as they concluded their campaign by finishing at a creditable ninth place in the league.
With 13 goals Jeje Lalpekhlua finished the season as the highest Indian goal scorer in the league and 7th highest overall, which must have sent shockwaves among their detractors. Their performance this season has gone a long way in questioning the myth which had prevailed for a long time that I-league is meant only for men and not for boys.
The Path Ahead
Whether AIFF will be able to keep the project Indian Arrows intact and whether they will be able to see the light of the second season still remains in doubt. Till now AIFF has not been able to find a sponsor for the next season, for which they have time till September. Quite a few parties from Pune and Kolkata have shown their interest in Arrows, who will most likely be relocated if any of these two deals goes through, but how will AIFF convince other clubs to let their youngsters stay with the Arrows, who were loaned out last year before the start of the season is the biggest hurdle in their way.
It is tough to say whether AIFF would be able to fulfill the dream of over a billion people in 2018, but it is pretty imminent that with the establishment of Indian Arrows they have definitely made a step in the right direction.
Still at a nascent stage, this Gurgaon based club is beginning to show early signs of progress. The experience of playing at the pinnacle of Indian club football is bound to do wonders for these upcoming stars of the future. The fact that seven of their squad players have already received a call up from the national team is a testimony to the strides the club has made in their very first year of existence.