An I-League season to cherish for Sudeva FC

Sudeva FC’s performance in its debut season wasn’t spectacular, but there is a lot to be buoyed about, says co-owner Anuj Gupta.

The mixed bag of results this I-league season could prove to be a spur in the long run for Sudeva FC (File Photo).   -  AIFF Media

A promising start, a stumble, and then a spirited run in the home stretch – Sudeva FC’s journey in its maiden I-League season could be roughly broken down into these phases. With an all-Indian side, the club managed five wins and assured a spot for itself in the next edition of the tournament. Two of those wins were against Chennai City FC, the 2018-19 champion. 

The season was bittersweet for co-owner Anuj Gupta, and a tragic loss in the final contest against Aizawl FC was a sobering end to the campaign. But there’s a lot to be buoyed about, he told Sportstar. 

“The first game, even though we lost that game, that was the most special moment,” Anuj said, referring to the club’s first I-League game, a 1-0 defeat against Mohammedan Sporting FC. 

“Especially playing in the Salt Lake Stadium, I didn’t know what to expect, neither did anyone else. I think we played decently, but we were unlucky. But that game I really felt was memorable. I was very happy that Shubho Paul got the man-of-the-match award in one of the matches (against Indian Arrows, on March 20). I felt I’m doing something right; younger boys are able to play at this level, and perform,” he said.

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String of losses 

The club registered two wins, two draws and two losses in its first six games. Among the wins was a 4-0 demolition of Chennai City on February 3. A 10-day break followed immediately after, and the club lost its way upon resumption, drawing against Aizawl FC and then losing three in a row to be relegated to the second tier of the competition.  

The win against Chennai City suggested to Anuj that Sudeva was ready to finish in the top six. It needed to win two out of its next four games, but that wasn’t to be. 

“The major reason we lost [three in a row] was the momentum we lost when Keane [Lewis] missed a penalty against NEROCA. In the 10th minute, we got a penalty, and we missed it, and then we lost 2-0 against NEROCA. That was a disappointment.  

“Sometimes, you need very experienced players in the team. I did make a couple of changes to the team, for the match against Gokulam and TRAU; I thought getting some young blood into the team might help. Against TRAU we were unlucky because the ’keeper made a very silly mistake, because of which they got the third goal. [Otherwise,] I think it would easily have been a 2-2, or we could have won.”

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Budding talent

In the second-tier, Sudeva came back to winning ways, defeating Chennai City, NEROCA and Indian Arrows. Seventeen-year-old Shubho was handed the captaincy and having already scored a goal for his side in the league stage, he struck again – this time as captain – against Indian Arrows. Anuj was happy for the teenager from Howrah.  

“His ability with the ball is god-gifted. The only lacuna which he has right now is the physicality, which is a normal thing at his age. So that’s the only thing I knew he’ll have to struggle with, but as matches have progressed, he improved. I’m very pleased about him and I’ve made a whole roadmap for him, which is the way I want it for him,” Anuj said.

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Sudeva’s bid to make it a perfect ending to its campaign came undone in the final few minutes of its match against Aizawl FC. Despite playing with 10 men, Sudeva led 1-0 until the 90th minute of the game, and then gave away two goals within six minutes.  

For the next season, Anuj felt his team needs to show better spirit and self-confidence. 

“Football is a game; no matter how good we play, at times we will be down, but the spirit has to be high. What I felt was that even when we scored a goal, we stopped believing in us. We started defending only. That change of mindset is something which I want to improve. The mindset should always be the same, no matter whether you’re winning or losing.” 

Summing up the season, he said, “In totality, it’s a great performance. If we had won the last game, it would have been perfect, in a way. But it’s football, so you don’t know what happens till the final whistle is blown. But I’m quite happy with the season we had, and next season also, I’ll be going with an all-Indian team.”

Shubho Paul: Being appointed captain was overwhelming

Seventeen-year-old Shubho Paul has had a promising start to his football career, having already played for India at the U-16 level and now having made an impact in the I-League. He scored two goals for Sudeva FC this season, one of five players to do so, with midfielder Kean Lewis the only player to score more for the side (three).  

In a brief chat with Sportstar, Shubho talks about his maiden I-League season. 

Q. How was your experience playing in the I-League? 

A. It was a new experience, playing the I-League. For many of us, it was our first time playing the I-League. We were all young players, and we picked the brains of the seniors to tell us how one has to respond to various situations. The seniors taught us most things. We wanted to win, and definitely score more goals. Everyone’s professional, and some of them are from abroad, so it was fun playing in this league. It was hard.

Talk us through the three losses and then the comeback. 

After the Chennai City FC game, there was a long break. I felt the focus disappeared. Maybe that’s why we lost three in a row after that. Our coaches and other staff had told us it’s our first season so we should aim to qualify in the top six. When we lost three in a row, it wasn’t possible to be in the top six, so we targeted a seventh or an eighth position. Then we focused on our game and tried to win. 

How did it feel when you became captain? 

The fact that they considered me worthy of being a captain is overwhelming for me. I was very happy. I’m 17, and I’ve been given the captaincy, it was a big moment for me. 

Are there any immediate plans of playing football again? 

I will be going to Delhi on April 6. I would be playing the Delhi Football League. I’m aiming to be the top scorer in that tournament.