The All India Football Federation (AIFF) revived the Indian Arrows project in 2017 to nurture young Indian talents and ensure they don't find the jump from youth to professional football too high.
The Indian Arrows have been playing in I-League (with immunity from relegation, of course) with the cream of the talent from the various India youth teams. The project has already supplied players to the national team, with the likes of Narender Gahlot and Amarjit Singh making the step up.
However, the project has contributed key players to the Blue Tigers in the last decade or so. It was initially started in 2010 before changing names to Pailan Arrows in 2011 for sponsorship reasons. The project was discontinued in 2013 which resulted in a gap of four years before it was re-started again.
Current head coach of Arrows, Shanmugam Venkatesh, was all praises for the AIFF for reviving a project he feels has been the backbone of the Indian national team for over a decade. The likes of Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Jeje Lalpekhlua, Pritam Kotal, Pronay Halder, Lalrindika Ralte, Halicharan Narzary were all Arrows products from back then.
"The Arrows side has really been the backbone for the senior team for almost a decade now. I would like to thank the AIFF for continuing with it. The likes of Gurpreet, Pritam, Pronay, Jeje, Halicharan, Len (Doungel) have been with Arrows earlier," he said.
"And it is just not about the Arrows – it’s about the academy project (AIFF Elite Academy). If you look at it, Gurpreet, Kotal, Sarthak (Golui), Narayan (Das), Jerry Lalrinzuala, Udanta (Singh), Pronay, Hali, (Anirudh) Thapa, Vinit (Rai), Germanpreet (Singh), Jeje, Amarjit, Narender have been part of that project for long. And there are so many more too – the list is endless."
Venkatesh was the assistant coach of the national team since 2015 and now has helmed the Arrows project from the start of the 2019-20 season. It has been a challenge that he has come to relish.
"I am very thankful for this opportunity. Being the head coach is quite different from being an assistant coach. As an assistant, you are more focused on the coaching aspect. But as the head coach, you need to take into account the overall development of the team.
"As a head coach, you also need to give it a bit of personal touch. You need to monitor the physical and mental progression of the players as well, and then factor that in with their performances on the pitch.
"We have to understand that these boys will go on to form the backbone of the senior team in the days to come. So we have to ensure that they are ready, both tactically and technically, if and when they make the jump to seniors," he said.
The former India captain also highlighted that while coaching the team is important, he has also had to factor in his wards' development since they are young and help them reach their potential.
"The players in the senior team have been playing at the professional level for a long time. They are aware of what’s good for them, and what’s not. With them, it’s more about ensuring the maximisation of their performance.
"But here in the Arrows, our focus is on the overall development of these players. We not only look at the technical and tactical aspects, but we also make sure that they receive proper diet with regards to their physical needs and also look after their mental development," he expressed.
The Indian Arrows youngsters have managed to churn out some brilliant results over the last few seasons despite playing against established sides that have more physical and mature players, including overseas stars. It has been the case this season also, with Venkatesh's team putting up a fight against most of their opponents. Though they have only nine points from 16 matches, they managed to beat East Bengal and Churchill Brothers away from home this season.
The 41-year-old's side also played some pleasing football during the course of the season. In fact, the Arrows had two wins and three draws this season. Out of the 11 losses, they lost by more than a one-goal margin only four times. Of the seven times they lost by a one-goal margin, twice they conceded late goals to lose the game, indicating a lack of experience - something that should come with getting more game time.
"We’ve played some closely-fought matches, and lost them. Yes, we all feel gutted after these losses. But we need to understand that it is the inexperience of the youngsters which cost them against senior teams. You may fail a thousand times, but what is important is that you keep trying. These experiences will later go on to help these guys become better footballers," said Venkatesh.