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Balwant, first Indian to score in ISL, looking for club ahead of Season 3

football Updated: Aug 24, 2016 16:16 IST
Dhiman Sarkar
Dhiman Sarkar
Hindustan Times
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Singh was with reigning champions Chennaiyin FC last time and a combination of factors may have contributed to the contract not being renewed yet. (Photo: indiansuperleague.com)

Balwant Singh will surely be hoping that a week is indeed a long time in sport. Long enough for him to cut a deal with an Indian Super League (ISL) franchise. For the man who became the first Indian to score in the ISL doesn’t have one yet.

All signings, including reserves who can be included in the squad after the fifth and the 10th rounds, need to be completed by August 31, according to ISL rules. The third edition of ISL begins on October 1.

At the time of writing this, Singh, 29, seemed to be in the whatever-will-be-will-be mode, preferring to concentrate on getting a troublesome left knee ready for action. “It will take me less than a month to get there,” said Singh, who played 14 games in ISL1.

“By the time ISL comes around, I’ll be ready but whether a team picks me or not is not in my hands,” said the striker who has won the Federation Cup, I-League and ISL.

Little game time in ISL 2

Singh was with reigning champions Chennaiyin FC last time. A combination of factors may have contributed to the contract not being renewed yet. First is the rule that each ISL squad must have one under-23 player and one who is under-21. Till 2015, teams had to have two under-23 players. For Chennaiyin FC, Jayesh Rane and Abhishek Das ticked those boxes. This year, both are over-23 and being on two-year contracts have been included as regular players. That meant Chennaiyin FC had to sign two developmental players for ISL 3. They got strikers Uttam Rai and Daniel Lalhlimpuia.

Also, last year each team was allowed 26 players of which 11 could be foreigners. This time the number has been reduced by one and most franchises prefer keeping the quota of foreigners at 11.

From playing 963 minutes in ISL 1, including 10 starts, Singh’s game time dropped drastically in the second edition. That could be because desperate to turnaround after a poor start where they lost four of their first five games, coach Marco Materazzi switched from the ‘diamond’, which needed two strikers, to variations of 4-4-1-1.

Materazzi did pair Singh and Stiven Mendoza --- the Colombian is unlikely to be part of ISL 3 because of an increased role for MLS team New York City FC --- as strikers in the 0-1 away loss to Delhi Dynamos but the next time he played, it was in the ninth game and on the left side of the midfield.

That is because by then Bruno Pelissari was playing on the left, marquee Elano Blumer would usually start on the bench, and Jeje Lalpekhlua was the frontman with Mendoza behind him. That worked and Singh may have suffered as a result. One year before all this and around the time Singh was king after scoring that goal against FC Goa, he had spoken about the formation being all-important. Ironically, it led to him playing only 218 minutes spread over six games in ISL 2.

That goal, a tap-in after a poor challenge on Blumer had the ball rolling his way, remains Singh’s only strike in the ISL, a competition he has said is a great platform and learning experience for Indian players.

Good start for Bagan

Bench rust didn’t get in the way of Singh starting and scoring in Mohun Bagan’s first two games in the 2016 I-League. Make that three because he came in for Azharuddin Mullik in the 13th minute --- coach Sanjoy Sen’s way of cocking a snook at the rule that said you must start with one U-23 player. Singh replaced Cornell Glenn in the fourth and fifth matches; a 1-1 draw against Lajong and 1-0 win against Sporting Clube de Goa respectively. It went downhill from there.

“I ignored slight pain to play those games, I shouldn’t have. I should have realised that playing on artificial turf could aggravate the problem. Usually in such situations, a player is under pressure to play but in this case, I have no one to blame but myself,” said Singh. Since that game against Sporting Clube de Goa on February 20, Singh hasn’t played.

The MRI reports showed no ligament injury and Singh consulted doctors in Kolkata and in Mumbai who told him he required rest and physiotherapy. “I showed the reports to the national team physio too and, through friends abroad, to doctors in the UK. Everyone pretty much said the same thing. That gave me hope. It still does,” he said.

“Of course, it will hurt if I don’t get to play in the ISL especially because I haven’t played for such a long time. But I can either let negative emotions weigh me down or stay positive about this episode and hope that it passes. Because I wasn’t fit and had paid the price for hastening things, I turned down a couple of offers from ISL clubs some time ago.”

Been there, done that

At least once earlier, he’s made a superb comeback. After three seasons Singh left JCT, from whose academy he had graduated and became a regular in his first year, when they were relegated in 2011. “Usually, players take time to adjust to the first team but Balwant settled in soon after being chosen. He was good in the air and on the ground and didn’t mind working hard,” said Sukhwinder Singh, former India and JCT coach, speaking over the phone from Phagwara, Punjab.

In 2011, Singh joined Salgaocar on a two-year deal. It didn’t work. He battled injuries and fell out of favour with coach Karim Bencherifa. Playing a handful of games over two seasons, he switched to Churchill Brothers and did so well for them that they won the Federation Cup and clubs made a beeline for Singh when the season ended. Mohun Bagan beat everyone to it and Singh, named Indian Player of the Year in 2014 by the Football Players’ Association of India, was part of the squad that won I-League in 2015.

Six months later he won the ISL. Now, he is walking alone on the road to rehabilitation.