With the Hero I-League 2020-21 season slated to start on January 9, 2021, the All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) developmental side Indian Arrows have begun their training camp earlier this month as they get set for the upcoming campaign. Leading the side as head coach will be former India skipper and also current senior National Team assistant coach Shanmugam Venkatesh, for whom it will be a second straight season in the Arrows dugout.
In a detailed chat with www.the-aiff.com, Venkatesh spoke about how he expects fierce competition for places in the team and stressed that the ‘door is always open’ for young players to come in and earn their spot, among various other topics such as his team’s return to training after lockdown, his expectations from the coming campaign and the crucial support provided by the Government of Odisha to his team and Indian football as a whole.
There will be a number of new faces in the Arrows squad this season. What can the players expect from you?
As head coach, I will observe each player in the team and I want to make it clear that every player has to fight for their position to remain in the side. The squad selected for this camp is not a permanent one. We are always on the lookout for the best players and more players can always come in by the time Hero I-League comes.
We have scouted more players as well and have a list ready, and there will be many opportunities for them to prove themselves. My message to all the young players is that the door is always open and they have to work very hard for a place. We always want to see healthy competition among players and we have a lot of young names to choose from, thanks to the hard work of our scouting network.
How do you look forward to working with a new batch of players?
It’s only a new batch for me as these players have already spent one-year training together under coach Shuvendu Panda. Even during the lockdown, they worked together through video sessions and virtual means, and I must commend the team for the great job they did. I have studied the team and have made my notes after watching their matches and videos. It’s always good to work with the challenge of a new group and I am looking forward to it.
As we start training now, I will look to bring in my philosophy and see where the players stand and how technically sound they are. The challenges for me are to support the players in the best possible manner, share knowledge, build a system of communication with them and make them improve as fast as possible.
The lockdown has been a challenging period for everyone. How does it feel to resume training?
Returning to football after such a long time is definitely a happy piece of news for the whole team. It’s a great thing that we are starting after a difficult phase and it is a motivation for everyone to start positively.
What are the initial challenges that you will focus on?
As training begins, it’s important to build up the players’ fitness and mental strength will be a crucial factor as well. It’s a big challenge for us coaches and the players. I want to inculcate a sense of confidence in the boys as we work towards getting into our rhythms.
Sports science is an important resource for us and we want to make the most of it as the players are more vulnerable to injuries at this time. We want to gradually take them to the match level. Each player had a different routine in terms of fitness and diet at home during the lockdown and the staff will consider all the factors before starting to work on them. An advantage for us is that the boys are young and I can push them a bit more.
Special arrangements have been made to resume the camps in order to follow the COVID-19 guidelines and protocols. How big a task will it be to adjust to the new normal, as they say?
It is vital to follow the guidelines as they are imperative for our safety. It is understood that everyone has to adjust to the new surroundings and routine and work according to the situation. It will be same for all the teams and while it will be tough initially, we will get used to the system with time. We have to be strong mentally.
I would like to express my gratitude to the Government of Odisha as well for supporting us at such a critical time and making the organization of this camp possible. The support they have shown for our national teams in the last couple of years at all levels has been incredible and has helped take Indian football forward together.
This will be your second season with the Arrows in the Hero I-League. How will you bring your experience from the first season to this one?
Our preparation and training will be key to our chances in Hero I-League. In the last season, I set up a professional mindset and set-up in the Arrows camp — similar to the one we have in the senior national team. It made it easier to work with the players and I will look to build the same this time around. I am looking forward to spending quality time with the team and build a strong unit in a systematic manner.
How do you feel your young team will adapt to the challenge of playing in the Hero I-League?
I always say that the Arrows are a stepping stone to the senior national team. The players already know the importance of playing in the Hero I-League and it is great exposure and opportunity for them at such an early stage in their careers. With the group getting so much time together, it will be a great platform for preparing for the next AFC U-19 Championship qualifiers as well.
Making the step-up will be a challenge but I am confident that they will get a clear idea of things and adapt after a couple of games in the league. Adjusting to the physicality will be an aspect we have to look into and work on.
Football has been among the first sports to make a return in India ever since the COVID-19 lockdown was lifted. What are your thoughts on this?
I feel that we are lucky to be in this position and would like to thank the federation and all stakeholders for restarting the sport. We footballers are lucky that we are able to restart and it is great to see that football is taking the lead in this regard. It shows how important football is in our country and shows the passion and love for the sport among the fans.
(Shraishth Jain / AIFF Media)