ON 15TH MAY 2011, INDIAN ARROWS were playing one of the last games of the season against the eventual champions, Salgaocar FC.
As the developmental team often did (Especially in a game they were obviously losing), they decided to field some players who hadn't yet gotten much game time.
It was like that, in a sunlit Ambedkar Stadium on a Sunday afternoon, that a boy from Kokrajhar named Halicharan Narzary made his debut in senior professional football.
He had gone on to make a mark at the U-16 national championship playing for Assam. He had even been a part of the U-16 national squad, which led to his inclusion in the Arrows. But what signalled the arrival of an exceptionally talented winger to Indian football fans was his top division debut on that day. Because he came on and soon scored a memorable goal against the best club in the country; a performance that immediately got him playing time for India U-19.
It's been just over 10 years since that day. Halicharan has gone from a young prospect to a sought after star player in Indian football, playing for 8 major clubs since then and picking up 27 caps for the Indian national team. All that led him to Hyderabad FC, the youngest club in ISL.
Looking back at his decade-long senior career, Halicharan Narzary appeared to be looking at his current club as the culmination of the journey,
"Yes, there was a lot to learn in that time but for me, playing with Hyderabad FC was probably my best season in the ISL. It feels fantastic to be a part of this club and I hope I can help them to success in the future."
Halicharan has reason to be happy. In the 2020-21 season, he had played 20 matches for HFC, scoring 4 goals. It was his best season since his stint with DSK Shivajians in 2016-17. His playing style didn't always mesh with the club he was at; but at HFC he felt he was being given his due,
"The years of experience I gathered certainly helps. I would like to think that my hard work and dedication has finally yielded results. The trust the coaches showed on me throughout the recent ISL season was also a huge factor in my form in front of goal."
Hyderabad FC, under new head coach Manolo Marquez, finished 5th in the ISL. Asked if missing out on the playoffs was a disappointment for him, Halicharan said appeared to view it as a building block for future seasons,
"The coach had plans in place and it almost worked pretty well. We were not too far away from a playoff spot but we always believed in our abilities. Though we fell short at the end, everything we have learnt from Manolo has made us better players and given us a lot of confidence."
The season was a rather unusual one due to it being played in a COVID-secure bubble in Goa. Halicharan didn't find the prospect of staying locked in one place for months to be easy; but said the team made it an easier experience to go through,
"Of course, it was a bit difficult to stay in a bubble for such a long time. The restrictions on almost everything was a bit tough to handle but with the pandemic, we recognized quickly that the restrictions were important. But the harmony between the entire HFC unit made it a lot easier... it was a commendable effort by everyone involved. But we as players were never totally happy. We want to play in front of our fans and we want them to cheer us through till the end. This was missing from the last season and I hope it is not long before we overcome these challenges... we as footballers play for our fans and when they are missing, it is not easy to be at your best. The last season, at times, we felt low playing in front of empty stands and I hope that changes soon."
Once the season ended, Halicharan could finally return to his family. To be reunited with his loved ones in the middle of the pandemic came as a relief,
"It was hard to leave the team and the friends you spent the last six months with but it was really exciting because we finally got to meet our family. It was really nice to meet my wife, who I really missed throughout the ISL season. After a hectic ISL season, it is important that I enjoy my time in the off-season. Now, I can do the things I like but more importantly, I get to spend time with my family, which makes me really happy."
Life back home came with a radical change of pace for Halicharan. While during the ISL season his days were spent focused around practice, training, matches and other fitness regimens, now he finds it hard to carry out his practice and workout routines,
"Maintaining fitness is a bit of a challenge in this pandemic. I have a ground near my house so I get to practice regularly. But I cannot go to a gym due to the lockdowns. So, it is not all perfect."
Although, if things had gone the way he wanted, Halicharan wouldn't be at home right now. After playing through the first half of India's friendly with UAE, which the Blue Tigers lost by a big margin, he missed out on the national team squad for the remaining World Cup Qualifier matches. When asked about it, his answer was brief,
"Playing for India is the biggest honour according to me. I am dying to serve my nation and I have spoken to my coach about the same."
Understandably disappointed, Halicharan wanted to shift his focus to the next season at Hyderabad FC, where finishing in the top four is a priority,
"As a team, our target is to finish as high as possible in the points table. We will aim to go all the way and may be even win the finals soon, who knows. We will continue to aim high and hope for the best."
After all, a decade of fighting to establish himself as a prominent name in the Indian football landscape has taught him that the best way to win back his place in the Indian national team is to do his best for his club.