With football coming to a standstill, and the season effectively coming to an end, The Bridge takes a look at the brightest young prospects of Indian football over the next one week or so. In this article, we take a look at Bengaluru FC’s Suresh Singh Wangjam who made his debut in the Indian Super League (ISL) this season.
There is no shortage of Indian youngsters who broke through this season. Mohun Bagan’s Nongdamba Naorem and ATK FC’s Sumit Rathi would head that list. In fact, both are sources of inspiration for the next generation looking to follow in their footsteps. However, if you’re asking who has developed the most since August, the prize belongs to Bengaluru FC’s Suresh Singh Wangjam.
This will go down as the season that truly launched Suresh’s career. The Manipur-born midfielder delivered on the big stage and deservedly forced his way into BFC’s plans.
When a 19-year-old commands the respect of head coach Carles Cuadrat, you know he’s on the right path.
“For me, the jump has been enormous,” the Spanish mastermind says when asked about the youngster’s development. “His desire to play is his main virtue. He loves the game. With time and experience, he can become a consistent player and make an impact in our club, in the ISL competition and even, if he continues with that progression, have a place in the National Team just as he did at their time in U-17.”
This was Suresh’s first outing for a professional club after having come through the All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) youth setup. There had long been a buzz around his rich potential at U-19 national team, especially after his performances with the Indian Arrows in the I-League and the Indian Super Cup, but harnessing that swagger was the sizeable challenge for Cuadrat.
“Suresh was one of those players who as the goalkeeper (Prabhsukhan) Gill came with experience in the I-League. His football conditions, his youth, his character and his desire to accept the challenge were the main reasons that made us bet on bringing him. But it was not clear if he could adapt to a category with a better level of foreigners and local midfielders such as the ISL,” the Spaniard, who helped Bengaluru clinch their first ISL title in 2019, recalls.
Countless hours were spent, working on the young boy’s decision-making and discipline. The message that talent would only carry him so far was repeatedly reinforced to him by the club’s coaching staff.
Back in August, just after a month after joining the Blues, the Durand Cup gave Suresh the perfect springboard for the season ahead. On the back of a promising Super Cup campaign, he was rewarded with a chance to showcase his talent at the Durand Cup. But Cuadrat was not mightily impressed initially.
“If you watch his games in the Durand Cup, he came to the BFC with many vices acquired from his previous stage; although he excelled at B Team and played a good tournament with them, he had too long drives with the ball, turnovers that can cost ISL goals, and errors in the last pass assisting balls. All this we have been polishing and now he hardly makes mistakes,” the coach says.
When Suresh was given his ISL debut, a 10-minute part off the bench against Jamshedpur back in November, he impressed in the midfield. Physically, he proved he could handle himself as he refused to be bullied. But the tough taskmaster that he is, Cuadrat was still not happy.
“I remember asking him to try not to loose balls. The third ball he touched was a drive like the ones he had made in the Durand Cup, alone against 3 opponents, and the possession loss resulted in a counter-attack by the other team. I thought at that moment that we should continue working because these are mistakes that you should not make in ISL with 0-0, 5 minutes from the end of the game, and fighting for the 3 points.”
All the blame, though, cannot be put on the youngster. After all, he was fazed by the enormity of the occasion, as he himself admits. “At first, I was scared of the seniors in the squad. To be honest, I was in awe of them,” Suresh recollects before adding, “I was new to the squad so it was taking some time for me to adapt to the coach’s style, to understand how he wanted me to perform.”
“I knew it was not going to be easy and that I had to step up if I wanted to progress. Our squad has top Indian and foreign players, to play alongside them was a huge learning experience. But obviously, my biggest challenge was to make it into the matchday 18 and then, the starting XI, to slowly prove that I can compete against the big players and seniors.”
Indeed, having to challenge the likes of Harmanjot Khabra, Eric Paartalu, Dimas Delgado, Eugeneson Lyngdoh for a place in the team can be a little intimidating. But sometimes having a captain like Sunil Chhetri comes as a boon. “I am very, very lucky to share the dressing room with Chhetri (bhai), I had never imagined that I will be playing alongside him, you know….,” says Suresh — as if he is still coming to terms with the fact, even after playing one season beside Chhetri, who being the exemplary leader he is, instilled confidence in the youngster.
“He is the best motivator. He is always there to lend you the support, even when you make the worst mistakes. That support is much needed because otherwise, you might lose your confidence and not perform. Trust me, there is always something or the other to learn from him, on or off the field. I mean, just look at him, he is the most successful Indian footballer and yet you will see him training the hardest. How can you not be motivated?” he asks.
After the Jamshedpur match, however, the teenager — who, as his former coach Floyd Pinto describes, is ‘an engine who does not stop running’ —had a small setback. A freak injury at a training session meant that he would be forced to sit out for a few weeks in December. However, on his way back to fitness, Suresh’s work ethic, discipline caught Cuadrat’s eyes.
“He continued working well and after demonstrating in the day to day training sessions, he finally won his chance to start in a match,” the coach remembers. He was put into the starting line up against Odisha FC, alongside Dimas and Paartalu and he shone.
“Before my first start in the ISL, it was against Odisha FC… Chhetri bhai told everyone, ‘Today, when Suresh is playing, no one will shout at him, let him play freely, give him confidence.’ It was like I was given a responsibility, and the captain had faith in me. That gave me a huge boost, it was very important for me,” Suresh adds.
Giving Suresh his first start proved to be an inspired decision as he embraced the extra responsibility. “During my 2 years here as a Coach, I have always tried to be fair to the players, and they know it and that’s why they respect me. Due to his good performance, Suresh was no longer just a part of the squad,” Cuadrat says.
The coach, true to his word, gave the boisterous youngster a spot in the starting XI in all but 2 games of the last 11, Bengaluru played; one for rotation (last league game against ATK) and one for sanction.
Personally, happy to have been able to make 10 young players debut in an Official @IndSuperLeague or @AFCCup match during my 2 years coaching BFC; @SureshWangjam, @LeonAugustine1, @paragshrivas3, Edmund, Ajay, Gill (GK), Roshan, Biswa, Amay & Myron. Future is yours!!! pic.twitter.com/mjZCD6CZE0
— Carles Cuadrat (@CarlesCuadrat) April 10, 2020
He did commit mistakes but the club backed him and put faith on him and it was all paid back in the first leg of the semifinal against ATK where Cuadrat had opted for Suresh ahead of the more experienced and much revered Udanta Singh.
“We were thinking about playing with Udanta or him,” Cuadrat reveals. “Udanta gave us more experience in important games and ones with a lot of pressure since he has started in the semifinals and previous finals. But he was lacking in confidence. On the other hand, Suresh was full of form and eager to play. I found it fair that he was the player who started, and he played a great game and we got a good result by winning 1-0 to ATK.”
“He still has beginner mistakes to correct, like hitting Wiliams inside the box in the 2nd leg of the ISL semifinal. We had the game and the tie under control at that moment (1-2 in total in our favour), and the Australian player had no option to shoot, he just wanted someone to touch him a bit so he could fall. Unfortunately, Suresh made a bad decision. But I am sure that he is able to learn from every single mistake,” the 51-year-old Barcelona-born gaffer observes.
“I never thought I would get so much game time in my first season, to be honest,” Suresh reflects but he knows this was only the beginning of the rest of his career. “My immediate goal is to break into the national team this year,” he says.
“It’s cliched, but obviously I need to work harder, no?” he adds. “In this break, under lockdown, I have had some time to think …I want to spend more time on the pitch and give my 100%, whether it’s a training session or a big match. I need to improve certain technical aspects to fit into what the team requires and prove that I am capable of competing against top opposition.”
Suresh has strived to maximise his talents and this was the season where that relentlessness has garnered wider appreciation. Next season can only be better, even Cuadrat believes so.