In the thick of things: Edwin Vanspaul's ISL journey

Twelve months back, Edwin was part of a remarkable fairytale with Chennai City. Fast forward to 2020, he is now on the verge of scripting another big one.

Statistics do not quantify Edwin Vanspaul's value to Chennaiyin FC.   -  Sportzpics

At the end of the 1-0 defeat to ATK, Chennaiyin FC’s opponent in the final on Saturday, in October last year, Edwin Sydney Vanspaul looked desolate in explaining what had gone wrong. Playing at right-back, he even tried to take it upon himself by unleashing a 30-yard drive from distance, which narrowly missed the goal. But he warned us, “once that [first] goal goes in, this isn’t the team that will stop scoring.”

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Vanspaul has been at the heartbeat of Chennaiyin’s remarkable run to the Indian Super League final. He has no goals or assists to show for it, but statistics don’t necessarily quantify his value to this side.

It required a change at the top in the form of Owen Coyle. Chennaiyin’s turnaround has rightly been credited to the Scotsman, who replaced John Gregory after six matches, to unlock the attacking potential in this team, which led the team to the summit clash.

But even in Chennaiyin’s barren run in front of goal, Vanspaul shone through with his grit, in what is his first season in the ISL. He was an instant hit with the supporters as they claimed the Neyveli-born footballer as “one of their own” from the terraces. He had the spectators swaying to his tunes with his tackling and dribbling, and by pulling out his celebratory jigs after a win.

A central midfielder by trade, Vanspaul had spent last three years of his career on the flanks; deployed as a winger and a right-back. In Chennai City FC's title-winning season, coach Akbar Nawas converted Vanspaul and a rookie central midfielder Ajith Kumar into full-backs. Nawas reasoned that he needed central midfielders to play in those roles for his system to work and Vanspaul justified the move by providing four assists. He was a busy, attacking right-back, often darting up the pitch or drifting into central midfield to clip passes over defences to set up goalscoring chances. At Chennai City, the right-back role was defined a ‘free role’, according to Vanspaul.

Edwin's versatility was on show at Chennai City.   -  AIFF Media

 

In the blue of Chennaiyin, too, Vanspaul would make those lung-bursting runs from the back but was occasionally left wanting in defence. Gregory, and later Coyle, would point out to him that he needed to adapt to the pace of the league and that he would need to track back. “It was all about instilling confidence. I was getting set in my position after that. When I was going forward, Eli (Sabia) would support me at the back,” he says, looking back at his start.

Ahead of the visit of NorthEast United FC in January, Coyle had a key decision to make in finding a replacement for the suspended midfielder Germanpreet Singh. Dhanpal Ganesh hadn’t recovered from his injury and drafting Masih Saighani into the midfield pivot would have disrupted the harmony in the attack among the front four, due to the five foreign player rule. Instead, Coyle turned to Vanspaul, who hadn’t played in the position since 2016.

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By his own admission, Vanspaul thinks it was a risk taken by Coyle, which ultimately paid off. The 27-year-old didn’t look out of place in the role, providing the perfect foil for the industry and guile of Anirudh Thapa. Vanspaul executed 11 tackles and kept things simple in Chennaiyin’s 2-0 win.

He has started in the midfield in eight of the nine matches since then and has formed an unlikely partnership in midfield alongside Thapa. On Vanspaul's change in role, Coyle says, "That was something in my mind. But similarly to German, they [Thapa and Vanspaul] had to compliment each other. All three of Thapa, Edwin and German, do that. They are very comfortable on the ball and they understand the role, in working hard to stop the opposition and being a vital part with their passing."

His versatility caught the attention of national team coach Igor Stimac as he earned his first national team call-up during the course of the run.

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Edwin has been central to Chennaiyin’s turnaround under Owen Coyle.   -  Sportzpics

 

In all this, Vanspaul isn’t content with what he has achieved. He is the first to tell you he didn’t have the best of games in the playoffs against FC Goa. He was taken off for Germanpreet before the 70th minute in both the legs. “In the last two games, my involvement was not there,” he says, despite winning the ball in midfield which set up Thapa’s goal in the crucial 4-1 home win.

His midfield partner Thapa and his replacement in recent games, Germanpreet, too, have been helping him to improve his game. “Thapa is very experienced at the international level and he guides me through the matches. I also speak to him on and off the pitch. German, too, helps me on how to trap the ball and how to receive in positions,” he says.

Vanspaul will now have to brush aside the disappointment of not realising a possible national team debut being put on hold and look ahead to a situation he can control. He has another chance to make the contribution in helping his team lift the title. “I couldn’t get the spark [in the semifinals]. But now the final is different and I don’t want to repeat those mistakes so I am training very hard,” he says.

Twelve months back, he was part of a remarkable fairytale with Chennai City in the I-League. Fast forward to 2020, he is now on the verge of scripting another big one.

On Saturday, Vanspaul will give his all to achieve that dream.

 

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