I-LEAGUE

Delhi FC gets promoted to the Hero I-League

That could perhaps be the greatest way to sum up Delhi FC’s current campaign. And it turned out just right for them because on Friday they won the Hero 2nd Division League championship and became the first team to ever be promoted to the Hero I-League.

Midway through the Group Stage, against somewhat underdog opponents Techtro Swades United (0-1) and Jagat Singh Palahi FC (1-2), Delhi FC dropped two of their first three games. However, they won four straight games after that, scoring 15 goals while giving up only one. A challenging trek up north to Srinagar to play Downtown Heroes was required on the previous matchday. They obtained the one point they required to secure a spot in the Final Round thanks to Balwant Singh’s penalty in the second half.

Yes, according to head coach Surinder Singh, “we did not start the group stage right.But even after two defeats, we knew we had to keep going, and we did well. Our last match (in the group stage) was a very crucial one away to Downtown Heroes. The boys were fully motivated and battled hard to top the group.”

But just when Delhi FC appeared to be on the road to recovery, their problems reappeared. The worst way to start the Final Round campaign was with a loss and a tie against Bengaluru United and Shillong Lajong.

“There are only four games in the Final Round, and after we got just one point in the first two games, the pressure on us was very high,” said Surinder.

Delhi FC battled for win

There was a renewed sense of hope when Delhi lined up in Kalyani against United SC because only two victories could save their effort to secure promotion. The senior team of Balwant and Bali Gagandeep could not be stopped as they carried Surinder’s team to a 3-2 victory. The match versus Ambernath United Atlanta on the final day was crucial. The good news was that they had control over their destiny and, more crucially, that they were on the Minerva Academy Ground, their comfortable home ground.

“The Kolkata game (against United) revived our campaign, and in the last game, the boys played with their hearts and showed the true champion spirit,” praised Surinder.

“We’re very happy after becoming champions. We had been waiting for this moment since the last two years when we first participated in the Hero I-League Qualifiers. We were very close that time but missed out. But since then, we worked very hard and were able to make this happen,” he continued.

Delhi FC placed third in the Final Round of the 2021 Hero I-League Qualifiers. Behind Kenkre and Rajasthan United, both of which received promotions to the Hero I-League. But what made that season different from this one? Surinder provided a simple response, which oddly enough makes sense in the context of Delhi FC.

“That year, we were the favourites to qualify, but this time we weren’t.”

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Delhi wins in group stage

In the group stage back then, a powerful Delhi team amassed four victories in a row. Sadly and mysteriously, they were unable to duplicate any of that domination in the Final Round. All of their hard work throughout the group round was undone by a last-second loss to Rajasthan United. That too on a soggy evening at the Bangalore Football Stadium.

“We did our best that time, but just one defeat eliminated us. That’s how it is in a short league format, where there’s little margin for error. It’s difficult to come back,” said Surinder.

“This season, we believed from the start until the end. Even though we weren’t in the best position to qualify, from both the group stage and the final round, we kept our mindset positive. And in the end, God is great,” he continued.

Delhi FC has a little history, but they have always been a club that values young people. But perhaps they needed a stronger dose of stalwarts this time around. Like former India international Balwant Singh, Gurtej Singh, and Bali Gagandeep. Surinder won’t be the one to reject the ideal balance of youth and wisdom.

Delhi head coach says

“It’s very important to have experienced players in your team, especially a legend like Balwant, who always takes charge whenever he’s on the pitch. Youngsters are always learning from him and all the senior players. They see how they play in the game, how they train and take inspiration.

“For the kind of intense and energetic football we play, young players are important. Giving chances to youngsters is our motto, as they are always ready to prove themselves. I enjoyed coaching our youngsters and seniors alike,” shared Surinder.

The Hero I-League is next for Surinder and his boys. And they aren’t just going there to fill out the numbers.

“In the Hero I-League, you can be assured that we are only going to play like champions. It doesn’t matter which tournament or league we participate in, our philosophy is always to win. We will not just be participating in the I-League but participating to win and gain promotion to the ISL,” said a confident Surinder.

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