David Fairclough of Liverpool is famous for a tag that he hates to this day. One that has rankled him during his playing days, one that rankles him now — the super-sub.
The Liverpool-born forward has 18 goals in 62 appearances as a substitute, including his famous strike against Saint-Etienne in the European Cup quarterfinals — one that cemented the moniker and helped Liverpool win the first of its six Champions League titles.
Indian forward Ishan Pandita, born 22 years later, is a Liverpool fan.
“Since childhood, I’ve watched Liverpool play a lot. I was a big Liverpool fan so I watched a lot of Fernando Torres back in the day, he was fantastic. He was something else. And then Suarez came in who is another beast. He’s class,” he tells Sportstar.
Pandita’s career trajectory in Indian football, however, has followed the path of Fairclough so far.
The 24-year-old forward has scored eight goals in his Indian Super League (ISL) and India career combined and all of them have come off the bench.
“I’m quite stubborn of not moving to the wing or moving out of position,” Pandita says.
“I want to be completing 90 minutes. But it’s difficult for an Indian No. 9 to start many games because of the foreign signings and the number of foreigners that can play in the ISL,” he says.
“I’m patient right now with the minutes that I’m getting but I want to become a proper No. 9.”
India football is going the right way
In 2016, Pandita became the first Indian to sign a professional contract with a Spanish first division club, when he joined CD Leganes as an under-19 player.
He then moved to fourth-division club Nastic de Tarragona for a stint in its under-23 side before signing for Lorca FC, where he finished as the highest goal-scorer for the fourth-division club in 2019-20, scoring six goals in 26 matches.
On his return to India, Pandita signed for FC Goa and played the ISL semifinals and the AFC Champions League.
“If I have to be honest, I wouldn’t say the coaching styles are so far apart because in India we’ve taken everything from Europe,” says Pandita.
“We have the full system from Europe or wherever it may be. It’s not an Indian coach or an Indian kind of training. Not to say that it’s bad, but we’ve brought that culture here. We’ve tried bringing as many foreigners as we can, so I wouldn’t say it’s that far off training. It is good, it’s similar, and India football is going in the right way. We are growing.”
Jamshedpur’s blue-eyed boy
Pandita joined Jamshedpur FC in 2021 and helped the team win its first-ever silverware last season - the League Winner’s Shield.
Though he scored just three goals, two of his goals (against SC East Bengal and NorthEast United) brought the Men of Steel two much-needed wins.
“I love the kid... he has a hunger for scoring goals... India is going to have a very good centre-forward,” Owen Coyle, then-manager of Jamshedpur FC, had said.
Under new coach Adrian Boothroyd, the striker has continued to perform, scoring two hat-tricks in consecutive games against Tata Steel and Tata Motors, helping JFC win 6-0 and 12-0, respectively.
Boothroyd, talking to Sportstar, also expressed his joy about the forward’s performance.
“I don’t really like to point out individual players but I think because of where Ishan is at this point of his career, there really is a good chance that he can flourish,” the coach said.
“He has scored his first goal for his country and now it’s about remaining focused and seeing if you can try and get into the team where there’s a very strong forward line.”
‘It’ll all be worth it’
Fairclough outgrew the super-sub tag, making 92 starts for Liverpool in his 153 appearances and scored 21 goals in them.
For Pandita too, the tide is turning.
He was the only forward, other than Sunil Chhetri, in the most recent internationals that India played against Singapore and Vietnam ahead of the AFC Asian Cup next year.
“There are additional things that I do off the field like staying back and finishing and finishing and finishing because I know when I’m on the field for 10-odd minutes, I’ll probably get one chance, and if I don’t make it click, then that’s it, my game is done. So, I do put a lot of effort into finishing, repetition and finding the back of the net,” he says.
Jamshedpur begins its Shield defence on October 11, when it hosts Odisha at the JRD Tata Stadium. It will be interesting to see if the Englishman – Boothroyd – chooses to start with striker Daniel Chima Chukwu, or Pandita or both.
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