In September this year, Bengaluru FC lifted the Durand Cup for the first time in their history. So did club skipper, Sunil Chhetri, who has now won every single major trophy there is in Indian football. After the final whistle, Chhetri sat easy by the side of the pitch, relieved to have landed silverware after three seasons. Alongside him was new signing, Roy Krishna, all smiles, having fit into the side like a dream. Together, they had accounted for six of Bengaluru’s 14 goals during the tournament.
A photographer readied to snap the duo, but Chhetri asked him to hold on. He called upon his teammate, Sivasakthi Narayanan, who was standing by. “This is the superstar,” Chhetri said. The young striker parked himself between the veterans as the photographer went about his business. And in that frame, the future of club’s striking prowess was evident.
As another season of the Indian Super League (ISL) got underway on 7 October, new coach Simon Grayson would be aware that in Narayanan, he’s just discovered another lethal weapon in his armoury. It’s the reason why the Englishman handed him his first ISL start during their 1-0 win over NorthEast United FC last week. The 21-year-old had always been a fringe player in the star-studded Bengaluru side. After earning a promotion to the first team last season, he managed just 60 minutes in seven matches during the ISL.
It was no different as he warmed the bench during the Durand Cup opener against Jamshedpur FC. But in the next game against FC Goa, he struck in injury time after coming on as a 74th minute substitute. And he continued his scoring spree with a goal in each of the next three games to announce his arrival as a serious contender for the starting XI.
“The game time last season wasn’t much, but I didn’t let it bother me. The idea was to show what I was capable of during the Durand Cup. I set myself a target of scoring within the first 10 minutes of getting on the field. Only then would I get to play the next game and land more opportunities in the ISL. This kept me going right through the tournament and helped me play better than the previous match,” Narayanan says.
Though he missed out on a goal in the semi-final, Narayanan had done enough. In the final against Mumbai City FC, coach Grayson took a chance on him and handed him his first start of the tournament. Just as he had planned it, Narayanan opened the scoring in the 10th minute.
“Through most of the tournament, I was only allowed to play 10-15 minutes, so I had expected it to be the same in the final. I was surprised to start the game and realised that the coach saw my potential. Besides, my team had never won this cup, so it was special,” he says.
Narayanan ended the tournament with five goals—the most for Bengaluru FC, and as many as ISL’s top-scorer from last season, Bartholomew Ogbeche of Hyderabad FC. The five strikes came over 230 minutes during the entire tournament. And that average of a goal every 46 minutes holds great promise for Bengaluru’s ISL campaign this year.
Where he lacks in physical presence, Narayanan more than makes up with his blistering pace, nifty dribbling skills, opportunistic positioning and a dash of guile. For the goal in the final, he tracked down a long ball and found himself up against Mumbai City’s Mourtada Fall, one of the tallest defenders in the tournament. Using his strength, Narayanan first got Fall out of his way, before deftly lobbing the ball over goalkeeper Phurba Lachenpa.
“My strength on the field has always been my speed and the coach was able to identify it. During training, I worked a lot on long balls that needed me to be fast. This helped me score that goal,” he says. His diminutive size was also why Narayanan first started out as a striker, back home in Kandanur in Tamil Nadu. Until seventh grade, he would simply be kicking the ball around with the neighbours or wandering over to the ground near his home to watch seven-a-side games. It was only in 2014 that he joined Noble Football Academy, a part of Raman Vijayan Soccer School, alongside his elder brother, Sivasubramanian, and took to the game more seriously. “I was always shorter than the rest of the team, so they would always push me to play as a striker. Once I started scoring goals, I knew I wanted to hold on to that position. Back then, the dream was to play the 7-a-side tournaments and represent my town,” Narayanan recalls.
He was soon playing in the games that he used to watch from the sidelines. The family pushed the brothers to keep improving on the field. Even after their father passed away while they were still in their teens, their mother, Muthulakshmi, backed them to continue playing. “We couldn’t be with her on a number of occasions, whether it was for family gatherings or during festivities. But she has always been supportive throughout this journey. We really are blessed to have her,” Narayanan says.
Academics took a backseat for Narayanan, whether at the JJ Government Boys Higher Secondary School or Christ College of Arts and Science. During the 2017-18 season, he scored 12 goals in the under-18 Elite League. The following year, he improved his tally to 22 goals from just 12 matches, winning the Golden Boot.
During his first year at college, he was scouted by Bengaluru and offered a contract. Once at his new club, he continued his scoring touch with 15 goals in the Bangalore Super Division, earning the best forward award for 2020-21. It was no different when he was called up to the senior side for their AFC Cup campaign in 2021, scoring on debut against Maziya Sports.
The ‘super sub’ tag has fast caught on with Narayanan, but that has changed with his Durand Cup exploits. At the same time, he remains grounded, well aware of the demands of playing alongside the big guns at Bengaluru.“I looked up to Sunil Chhetri as a kid and it’s a delight to play alongside him today. While I’ve received tremendous encouragement from the senior players, it also means I need to give my best, with little room for mistakes. This has motivated me to play better,” he says.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based freelance writer.