Akhil Rawat
AIFF Media Team

NEW DELHI: Slow starters, but rampant finishers. That is perhaps the best way to describe Delhi FC’s current season. And it has worked out perfectly for them as they sealed a historic Hero 2nd Division League title and a first-ever promotion to the Hero I-League last Friday.

In the Group Stage, which began mid-March, Delhi FC lost two of their first three games to rather unfancied opponents Techtro Swades United (0-1) and Jagat Singh Palahi FC (1-2). However, they followed that up with four straight wins, pumping in 15 goals and conceding just one. The last matchday called for a tough trip up north to Srinagar to face Downtown Heroes. Balwant Singh’s second-half penalty got them a point, which was all they needed to clinch the Final Round berth.

“Yes, we did not start the group stage right,” said head coach Surinder Singh. “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 their struggles returned just when Delhi FC looked to be back on track. Goals dried up, and a loss and a draw against Bengaluru United and Shillong Lajong was the worst possible way to begin the Final Round campaign.

“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.

Nothing but two wins would salvage Delhi’s promotion attempt, and when they lined up in Kalyani against United SC, there was a new sense of belief. There was no stopping the senior duo of Balwant and Bali Gagandeep as they powered Surinder’s side to a 3-2 win. The last day was a do-or-die affair against Ambernath United Atlanta. But the good thing was that their fate was in their hands, and most importantly, they were on the familiar home turf of the Minerva Academy 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 added.

In the 2021 Hero I-League Qualifiers, Delhi FC finished third in the Final Round behind Rajasthan United and Kenkre, both of whom were promoted to the Hero I-League. But what was the difference between that season and this one? Surinder had a straightforward answer, which strangely enough somewhat makes sense in Delhi FC’s case.

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

Back then, a dominant Delhi side racked up four wins in four in the group stage. However, unfortunately, and inexplicably, they couldn’t replicate any of that dominance in the Final Round. A last-minute defeat to Rajasthan United on a rain-lashed evening at the Bangalore Football Stadium undid all their group-stage hard work.

“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 added.

In their short history, Delhi FC have always been a club focused on youth. But perhaps an added dose of stalwarts, including former India international Balwant Singh, Gurtej Singh and Bali Gagandeep, was what they needed to get over the line this time. Surinder is not the one to say no to the right mix of youth and experience.

“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.

Up next is the big one – the Hero I-League – for Surinder and his boys, and they are not going there only to make up 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.