Things were looking up for Deepak Devrani in the run-up to the inaugural season of the Indian Super League (ISL) in 2014.
As a junior, he had turned out for every single India side, from the under-16s, all the way to under-23s. At Indian Arrows, he had three promising seasons alongside some of the brightest young footballers in the country. It had earned him a transfer to Sporting Clube de Goa in the I-League, where he helped them finish fifth in the 2013-14 season. He now looked forward to his ISL debut after being picked up by Pune City via the draft.
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But by the end of that season, Devrani had a sinking feeling that his career was falling apart. After regular game time as a defender during the pre-season friendlies, he warmed the bench for the rest of the season. It was no different when he was sent out on loan to Mohun Bagan in the I-League.
After seven nerve-racking years, Devrani, 28, hopes to finally make his ISL debut this season. The news of him joining Chennaiyin has done the rounds, but he won’t admit it until there’s official word from the club. He’s all too familiar with the jinx that has afflicted him time and again.
“I considered myself to be an established player when I joined Pune, having featured in every single game of the junior India teams, while also in the I-League. I had played alongside guys like Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Jeje Lalpekhlua, who had made the cut on the senior national team. Normally you pick a club where you know you have decent prospects of playing, but through the draft, this wasn’t possible,” Devrani says.
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At Pune, the then-coach, Franco Colomba, preferred foreign players as centre backs and senior India players like Mehrajuddin Wadoo and Dharmaraj Ravanan as full backs. Bagan too were averse to making changes in the defense.
“By the end of the season, my profile showed zero minutes against my name. While I didn’t doubt my abilities, there was certainly a question mark that needed answers—what exactly had gone wrong? It was a mighty fall,” he says.
It’s ironic that Devrani’s first I-League title came with Bagan that year, despite not playing a single minute. Since then, he’s gone on to win two more titles while playing a substantial role in the team. He cherishes each one just the same. “I was at every training session putting in my best. As a junior, I learnt from others; once I gained experience, I helped the youngsters. I did everything so that the team would win, game time or otherwise. So I’ve never valued one title over the other,” he says.
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The challenges came thick and fast after Devrani left Bagan in 2015. Out of a contract, he had to show up at trials and prove his worth again, despite having turned out in India colours for the under-23s just a year before. He was picked up by Minerva Punjab (now RoundGlass Punjab) in 2016, but once again, failed to find game time. Towards the end of the season, the management chose to release him since they couldn’t afford his salary. Devrani decided that he wasn’t going down without a fight.
“I asked if they had ever seen me play or if there was any indiscipline on my part. I wanted one match where I could show what I was capable of. If I failed, I would take a bus home from the stadium itself and they could keep my salary as well,” Devrani says.
That game came against Bengaluru FC. He played out of position at left back, but did well to keep the nippy Udanta Singh quiet throughout the game, which ended in a draw. It was enough to seal his spot for the rest of the season. “I had a lot of pent up frustration, since I hadn’t played for over a year. That match felt really good,” he says.
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It was enough to earn Devrani a fresh contract with Punjab the following year though. But there were rude reminders of just what he was missing out on. He saw former teammates turning out regularly in the ISL. The glare of the floodlights at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium was unbearable each time the Delhi Dynamos played, his home a stone’s throw away from the venue. The traffic jams outside would simply annoy him, as he tried to drown out the match day buzz by blasting music in his car.
“I would feel terrible since I knew I belonged there. And I was out without even landing my chance. In my desperation, I remember offering my services to a club for free and that too hadn’t worked out,” Devrani says.
“But over time, I changed my thinking and was more open minded to every aspect of the game. I accepted my shortcomings and figured where I had to improve. It did wonders for my confidence,” he adds.
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In the 2017-18 I-League season, Devrani was at the heart of Punjab’s plans. He also started working on his diet, rest and recovery, which in turn helped him get faster on the pitch and remain injury-free throughout the season. By the end of the season, he had picked up his second I-League title. But offers from bigger clubs still didn’t work out and after three seasons with Punjab, he took on a new challenge with the Manipur-based team TRAU FC. “I had a few opportunities but these clubs had already signed foreigners in my position. Game time was most important for me, so I decided to join TRAU,” he says.
He scored the debut goal for the newly-promoted side in the I-League and became a mentor to the younger players. After a sixth-placed finish, he decided to make his move to Gokulam Kerala for the 2020-21 season, where he finished the season again as champion.
“The team looked strong and the coach was really interested. He pushed me into different things. For instance, I started taking corners and had four assists that year. After missing the first game, I played every single minute and once we gelled as a team, I knew we were deserving of the title,” he says. “There are players who’ve played for years and have never won the league. I feel blessed to have three I-League titles to my name,” he adds.
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When his agent told him of another interested ISL club earlier this year, Devrani withdrew into his shell. He had heard of it way too often in the past, only for it to eventually fizzle out. Only this time around, he rides on the hope that things will be different.
“I’ve ticked off most things on my list, only two remain - featuring in the ISL and making my senior India debut. If I can accomplish one of these this season, I’ll consider it to be a fulfilling one,” he says.
That long wait may just come to an end this time around.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer.