Beaten but not disgraced

Blackburn Rovers' Christopher Samba heads the ball over Pune FC defenders Gurjinder Kumar and Chika Wali during the exhibition match at Balewadi in Pune. Chika came in for praise for his outstanding performance in the match.-PTI

Goalkeeper Shahinlal Meloly and defender Chika Wali, with their remarkable displays, ensured that Pune FC — despite its 3-0 defeat to Blackburn Rovers — walked off the turf at Balewadi with its head held high. By Nandakumar Marar.

Ninety minutes of courageous goalkeeping by Shahinlal Meloly against Blackburn Rovers — diving and tumbling to block shots — was enough for the Pune FC goalkeeper to make a statement about pure talent in club football at home waiting for an opportunity to prove their potential. The Indian junior international did well under pressure in the first ever match between an Indian club and an English Premier League side to leave a distinct impression on the visitors' minds.

Jason Roberts of Grenada, the star striker in Blackburn's 3-0 victory, expressed admiration for the young Indian's performance under the bar. Steve Kean, the team manager, made a reference to Shahinlal's reflexes and his range of saves during his post-match analysis.

For Shahinlal, whose only link with EPL or European football till then was watching matches on television or replaying videos of his idol Iker Casillas of Spain, playing against Blackburn was a wholly new experience. The 22-year-old Kerala lad rose to the occasion.

Having been given four days time by the coach, Derrick Pereira, to prepare himself mentally for the once-in-a-lifetime chance at the Balewadi Stadium, Shahinlal soaked up the pressure as Blackburn turned on the heat in the exhibition match. At one stage, in the second half, Shahinlal waged a lone battle against the Blackburn strikers, Roberts, Argentine Mauro Formica and Nigerian Yakubu Ayegbemi.

“I wanted to support my defence seeing the way they were fighting back and dealing with the continuous attacks (of Blackburn),” the Pune FC goalkeeper said.

Shahinlal seemed unfazed by the sight of huge figures lurking around for scoring opportunities. He denied Roberts twice, tumbling and grabbing the ball in time on the first occasion and then diving spectacularly to his right and punching a low shot away for a corner.

Pune FC was down to 10-men following a red card to debutant Anas Edathodika. Roberts struck twice in Blackburn's victory, but he did not forget the saves effected by Shahinlal. “A couple of guys impressed me. The goalkeeper was fantastic and made many saves. No. 4 (Nigerian central defender Chika Wali) was outstanding; he must have made about 52 saves. I think they (Pune FC) can take a lot of credit for the way they played. The level was better than I expected,” said the Blackburn striker.

Shahinlal Meloly's courageous display under the bar impressed the Blackburn manager, Steve Kean.-VIPIN CHANDRAN

The Blackburn manager, Kean, singled out Shahinlal for special praise. “He was brave. He not only made a number of saves, but also different types of saves. His reactions were fantastic, and on one occasion he almost did a triple save. The goalkeeper has a bright future and the club will keep an eye on him,” he said.

Kean also said the club had plans to make the India visit an annual feature in order to popularise the Blackburn Rovers brand, involve players in coaching clinics for kids, community work and play exhibition matches.

If Blackburn could bring the best out of an Indian representing a club team, imagine the benefits of long-term exposure in the EPL for youngsters such as Shahinlal through specialised training modules and match-play with Blackburn Rovers' development squads. Indian owners of EPL clubs can really help in this regard. After all, spotting talent in the top football nations in Africa like Congo, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Cameroon and importing them to EPL is very much in vogue today.

Prior to the Blackburn match, Shahinlal had represented India Under-19 and played for Viva Kerala before he was spotted by the Pune FC management.

The wiry and athletic goalkeeper was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, fit and available when Blackburn announced the revised dates for its tour of India. Shahinlal was also fortunate that India's first choice goalkeeper and skipper Subrata Paul was away in Delhi playing the Durand Cup. “Subrata advised me to keep my cool and not get carried away by the occasion,” revealed the youngster.

For Edathodika, the powerful Pune FC defender, it was a big disappointment, for he was robbed of the opportunity to display his tackling skills following a second yellow card. However, Shahinlal and Chika, with their remarkable displays, ensured that Pune FC, despite the 3-0 defeat, walked off the turf at Balewadi with its head held high.