“What I learnt at Arrows…. Hmm that’s not a tough question,” Lalliansanga Renthlei says, “Venky (Indian Arrows coach Shanmugam Venkatesh) teaches you a lot about discipline. He taught me a lot about discipline off the football pitch and on it.”

Renthlei knows Venky’s ways up close, having spent a year under him at the Indian Arrows last season. He will carry that knowledge when his new side, Sudeva Delhi FC, faces them on January 14 at the Kalyani Stadium in Kolkata. It is one of the quirks of this year’s I-League (not the first time it has happened but quirky nonetheless) that will see two all Indian squads take on each other on the second matchday of the season. For Renthlei, it will be even stranger —  a curious alignment of fortunes will see him play for an Indian squad twice in two seasons. And two squads heavily reliant on youth.

In this, though, he isn’t alone. Sudeva Delhi FC’s squad has two more players who were part of the AIFF development squad, Indian Arrows, last year — forward Manvir Singh and goalkeeper Lovepreet Singh. The Arrows setup itself has completely changed from when they were there. A huge number of the old squad have moved on and found new homes. Of the trio, Manvir is arguably the one with the most experience, having been with Arrows and also part of the Indian team which won the 2019 SAFF U-19 Championship — the first time in the country’s history. 

Renthlei and Manvir are unanimous in their opinion that despite facing a squad younger than theirs — also coming off a loss in their opener — there is no reason to take them lightly. “We cannot underestimate them,” Renthlei says, “Football doesn’t work that way. They will be fit and pumped. They have no pressure and they will play like it.” 

Coach Chencho Dorji also acknowledges that the fixture is massively important for Sudeva’s season. “We lost the first game, and while people may have been impressed by the way we played, it means nothing,” he says.

“It is important to bounce back with a win. That will lift the spirits of the players and give them confidence in what they are doing and have been doing. It is a crucial game of the season for us, because if we can win, it will kickstart us for the next few games.”

For forward Manvir Singh, the Arrows game is one he has had an eye on since the time the fixtures list was announced. Not for any other reason but because he sees this fixture as one that will highlight the I-League’s brilliance perfectly. “This is pure Indian football,” he says simply.

“But can I just say one more thing? It is important to not think of them as ‘young, ‘developmental’, ‘all Indian’, etc. Everything they are we are and vice versa. They will be tough opponents and it will be a great game of football. I can promise you that”.

Renthlei and Manvir are two players to have recently come through the Arrows system and have found their home in a new similarly young set-up. But youth in this squad is balanced by experience. A shared experience. One of those senior players is Ajay Singh Rawat, a forward who has played for a diaspora of clubs unlike any other. These include JCT, Mohammedan Sporting, Pune City FC and, crucially, Pailan Arrows, in the second season of the team’s inception.

“One of the things that happens when you play young teams is that their energy, their pressing, their constant running sometimes disrupts your own game,” Ajay says. “You start rushing into things and playing at their pace. Unsurprisingly mistakes occur. As a young player I have profited from it. Against Arrows it is crucial that we do not fall into that trap”.

“The best way to do that is to deny them the ball. Instead of focussing on how they play, we should stick to the way we play. The rest will follow”.

Sudeva Delhi FC take on the Indian Arrows on 14 Jan 2021 at 4 pm. Catch all our 2021 Hero I-League games on the 1Sports network (available on all major cable and DTH platforms. Click here for info on your service provider). We are the national capital’s first, and only, I-League club and we need you to build the football movement in our city. Sign up now to become a member of your club. Follow Sudeva Delhi FC on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Be a part of this exciting new chapter in Delhi’s football story! 

Picture: Vaibhav Raghunandan