ISL: Indian youngsters lend silver lining to Odisha FC's tough season

Josep Gombau reflects on Odisha FC's sixth-place finish in the 2019-20 season, with the performance of the Indian youngsters a major positive.

Josep Gombau

Odisha FC manager Josep Gombau and youngster Shubham Sarangi get game-ready before an ISL match.   -  ISL Sportzpics

Catalan coach Josep Gombau had a lot of obstacles to contend with during the ongoing Indian Super League (ISL) season. The Delhi Dynamos management opted for a fresh start by moving base to Bhubaneswar and rebranded itself as Odisha FC.

While every other team had the comfort of playing its home matches from the early stages, Odisha only played its first home game at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar on the 10th matchday of the league stage.

And having assembled a squad with an average age of 24 in the competition, Gombau led the squad to a respectable sixth-place finish, narrowly missing out on a playoff place in the last gameweek.

Gombau took up the project in Delhi in 2017, when he helped an inexperienced team finish eighth in the previous season. On the possibility of returning for a third season, the 43-year-old said, “We are under discussions with the club. In the next few weeks, we will make the final decision.”

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With the Kalinga Stadium under renovation, the club was forced to play three of its home games at the Balewadi Stadium in Pune. Elaborating on the first half of the season, he said: “When we moved to Pune it was a difficult moment. We played our home games in an away field and that made it nine games without home comforts. We had a stadium but we didn’t have a practice field. So we had to go to Mumbai to train and return to Pune to play the games.”

In the first nine matches of the season, the club picked up only 12 points from a possible 27, keeping up with the theme during their time in Delhi. On the slow start made by the club, he said: “In the first two games we deserved to get more points but we lost against Jamshedpur and NorthEast away. But it's true that the move of the club was difficult for us because we didn’t play our first home game until game week 10. But we managed well to get 25 points and shows our squad is growing in a good way.”

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Odisha FC players and manager Joseph Gombau join Martin Guedes in celebrating a goal.   -  ISL SPORTZPICS

The squad has several promising Indian youngsters - all under-23 at the start of the season - in Shubham Sarangi (17 matches), Jerry Mawihmingthanga (17), Vinit Rai (15), Nandhakumar Sekar (16), Gaurav Bora (10), Arshdeep Singh (9) and Daniel Lalhilmpuia (16). Gombau, who has experience of coaching youngsters at the FC Barcelona academy and the Australia U-23 men's team, takes a lot of pride in their progress during this season.

Reflecting on their progress, Gombau said: “I think the young players in our squad performed well and were important for us. Our team had the youngest squad in the ISL, and we played every game with five U-23 players on the field. Arshdeep, who in his first ISL season, played 8-9 games and it was fantastic for Shubham to play every game but one through suspension. Gaurav Bora came from the I-League, and he played 10 games and did very well.

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“Vinit at the moment has a great future. At just 22-years-old, he is one of our main players. Jerry played every game for us, expect one through injury. Nandha and Daniel did very well. I am so happy. Last season, (Lallianzuala) Chhangte, too, played a very good role in our team. Chhangte was our main scoring player and this year he is doing well for Chennaiyin FC by showing his quality. We are a club which works hard with youngsters and we need to be proud of their development.”

There was criticism levied by the opposition managers against the poor quality of the pitch at the Kalinga Stadium.

“Pitch was not in the best conditions because we moved there in the last minute and they worked hard to have the pitch ready,” he said. “The field will be perfect next season. Of course, it was not in the best condition to play but if one team in the league suffered that is us because we played six games there. We are a team who likes to play and have the ball and sometimes it was difficult for us. This is something which will be solved next season.”

Gombau is content with the direction in which the football side of things is moving in at the club. “I think everybody can see the progress from last season. We are in the right way. This year we were in positions five, six or seven for most parts and we fought until the last moment to be in the playoffs. The club with these youngsters are growing and will take more experience from this. And with good foreign players we can have a very good future,” he said.

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