IN CRICKET IT'S NOT unusual to see promising young players being sent to England to train with and play for a county team. But in football that has hardly ever been the case.
In fact, sending players to other clubs for training and exposure purposes, let alone other countries, is nearly unheard of in Indian football. There have been "strategic partnerships" between I-League clubs and European teams before, but most of them turned out to be publicity stunts with little else to them. ISL franchises with European clubs as stakeholders have organized training camps abroad, but those were short-term projects where the players got to know each other; a practice vastly different from sending a player out into another team to test himself and benefit from them.
But Bengaluru FC, always a front-runner in adopting modern, professional ways of running the club and developing their players, have broken from the mold and sent one of their young players to train with Oxford United, a League Two club in London. It is a part of their ongoing strategy of securing a bunch of promisiong youngsters with long term contracts and grooming them to form a home-grown core of the team that will pull the club for years to come. The player in question is winger Kumam Udanta Singh.
A Tata Football Academy graduate, Udanta has turned a lot of heads at an early age. Although he has just turned 19, he has already made his presence felt in the Bengaluru FC first team, and made a name for himself with good performances in AFC Cup.
He was signed by Bengaluru FC in summer 2014 after helping Tata Football Academy win the U-19 I-League. By this time, he had already been a part of the India U-19 squad in the AFC U-19 Championship qualifiers.
His rapid progress at training was rewarded by Ashley Westwood as he was given his first team debut in October, at a Durand Cup match against Mohammedan Sporting. Fast forward to March 2015, and he made his I-League debut, coming on as a substitute against Sporting Clube de Goa. The very next month, he got a run out in the AFC Cup against Maziya S&RC, where he became the youngest Indian to get an AFC Cup assist by helping Sunil Chhetri tuck one in. Next month, he got the first goal of his senior career against Indonesian club Persipura, scoring BFC's only goal in a 3-1 defeat, becoming the youngest Indian to score a goal in the AFC Cup.
All in all it was a good season for the Manipuri winger. He had played in 10 league matches, where his agile gameplay and intelligent passing marked him down as one of the brightest prospects in Indian football. But as I-League came to a close, the clubs were staring at no less than 7 months of inaction before the next league season would commence. Being out of the game for so long is harmful for players, especially youngsters who are at a crucial juncture of their development as a player. This is why the club chose to send Udanta abroad at a club where he could potentially test his abilities in a new setting.
Bengaluru FC CEO Parth Jindal had this to say,
“We all know the kind of talent Udanta possesses and as a club, we need to make sure he's given the best chance to keep improving. We are glad that Oxford United FC accepted our request to have him over and we have no doubt whatsoever that the boy will make the most of his stay there. He will be under the guidance of a seasoned manager like Appleton and will return not only an asset to the club but to the country even.”
It is understood that Bengaluru's head coach Ashley Westwood, who is personally familiar with many of the coaching staff at Oxford including their head Michael Appleton with whom he shares a Manchester United academy background and work experience at Blackpool and Blackburn, played a major role behind the scenes in facilitating the arrangement. He said,
"I personally went to meet the staff whom I know very well and I am pleased that he is in good hands with an exceptional coach who has worked with some of the best in the country in Roy Hodgson, Roberto Di Matteo and Bryan Robson. I am certain that Udanta will excel under the mentoring of Michael Appleton."
Newly rewarded with a 2 year contract extension, Udanta himself is relishing every bit of this new opportunity. He has already made himself at home in Oxford, and is going through regular, rigorous training,
"The facilities are really good here and there are a lot of similarities between methods here and at Bengaluru FC which makes me feel at home. It did take a bit to get used to the pitch but I'm comfortable now."
It is likely that Bengaluru FC will play in the Durand Cup come October. It will be interesting to see if by then Udanta is given a larger role in the Bengaluru FC first team. The upcoming couple of seasons will be crucial for the youngster as he prepares to take on the next big challenge in his career: the coveted national team call-up.