While Real Kashmir FC’s game against Rajasthan United FC may look like a rematch of a fixture that was among the last round of fixtures for the previous season, a lot has changed in the seven months since. For starters, the home team will be marshalled by a local ex-great from the sidelines, Ishfaq Ahmad, taking charge of the outfit for their opener at the TRC Turf Stadium in Srinagar. Ahmad’s most recent outing as a coach was with the India U-17 side at the SAFF Championship in Bhutan. It was, by all accounts, a success as India stormed to the title.
A host of local talent — as many as 10 have been formally announced — has been signed on to the squad and will undoubtedly make their debuts sooner than later in the league. Srinagar has always been a tough place to play away, the locals love for football and the artificial surface just two of many challenges and Ahmad hopes that it all helps them as they look to kick off positively.
“It’s a completely new squad, and even the coaching staff is new. In one of my first conversations with the owner, it became clear that he was interested in giving more opportunities to local players,” Ahmad said on the eve of the fixture. “He wanted to give them a platform which they lack and I completely agree, it’s a great idea. That said, we have a good mix of foreign players, local players and others from across the country.”
With promotion to the Indian Super League up for grabs, every side’s ambitions have undoubtedly received a bigger boost than ever before. Without putting too much emphasis on it, Ahmad did insinuate that the extra incentive would be good for the league itself. “Obviously it’s a big thing, and we want to challenge for that top spot, but I prefer to look at things week by week, game by game. We do this one first, then move ahead.”
It’s a philosophy echoed by Pushpender Kundu, who is one of only two Indian managers retained by their clubs from last season. Kundu’s side were the dark horses at the beginning of last season, judged on their pre-season displays in cup tournaments. In the long league, though, the lack of squad depth and experience hit them hard as they lurched towards a mid-table finish.
Despite a host of departures, Kundu’s side looks better suited to the league this time around, filled with a fair few young faces but many with experience of the league itself. The signings of Army men Bhabindra Malla Thakuri in goal and Ronaldo Singh in midfield will add more muscle to the team itself. Hardik Bhatt’s return from a Mumbai City sojourn will undoubtedly prove beneficial for the player and the club too.
“We’ve had a solid, long pre-season, and I’m happy with the time we’ve spent doing the hard work. If you do that, then the game itself is a reward,” Kundu says.
“We’re away from home and it’s the first game of the season. Obviously, we want to win, but I also want the team to gel, to play like they’ve been training and to show some good character on the pitch. We have a long road ahead, the league is a marathon, not a sprint.”