When Aizawl FC wrote themselves into the annals of Indian football on 30th April 2017 with a draw against arch-rivals Shillong Lajong, they showcased qualities that forge champions. They were gritty, they were tenacious and they were bloody-minded about winning that crown.
It did not matter they were down by a goal early on against Lajong. They kept chipping away until a goal materialised and held on for dear life until the long whistle from Pranjal Banerjee heralded a shift in the tectonic plates of Indian football.
Interestingly, Khalid Jamil's side were forced to fight tooth and nail for the crown without their skipper Alfred Jaryan, who was suspended for this game. He had played his heart out in all the 17 previous games and Khalid Jamil would have given anything to have his calming presence for the final game.
But the team that Aizawl are, they pulled through the minor crisis (that's how important Jaryan was to their cause) and came out shining. Alfred Jaryan shed some light on his disappointment at not being able to play the game when he spoke to Goal.
"The final game was very important for us. I was extremely disappointed that I was not able to play. But we've been a team in all meanings and my friends gave their very best. I spoke with them before the game and they said they will do anything to win the trophy and we did," he explained.
The 28-year-old signed for Aizawl FC when they were promoted to the I-league in 2015 and was deployed as a forward alongside Joel Sunday in their inaugural season. He struggled to find goals as Aizawl were relegated, only to be handed a lifeline back into the top-flight following the infamous pull out of the Goan clubs. With Khalid Jamil, who had coached him at Mumbai FC a few years back, bringing in Ivorian striker Kamo Bayi this time around, Jaryan's role in the first XI was not clear.
But, in what turned out to be a surprising but in hindsight an inspired move, the Liberian was tasked with anchoring the midfield. Literally, Jaryan stepped back to push his team forward from the depths of last season to the zenith of Indian football. Sheathing his striker's instincts, Jaryan metamorphosed into a tireless midfield dynamo who protected his defence, broke up opposition moves and sprayed the passes around.
He sacrificed the goals and assists, with it the headlines, even as The People's Club made a steady ascent up the league table. His season stats read zero goals, zero assists and four yellow cards (which ended up costing him the final game) but he was compensated with a shiny medal and a glittering trophy. Jaryan claims that the move to play in midfield was made by him and Jamil welcomed the idea.
"I can adapt very easily. Even last season, I played more as an attacking midfielder behind Joel Sunday. I never considered myself as a proper striker. Also, I had played in midfield for my country's U17 and U23 teams. So I know how it is (to be playing in midfield). I put the idea forward and the club gave me a chance," Jaryan said when asked of his step back into midfield.
Syrian playmaker Mahmoud Al Amna was another player who was as crucial to Aizawl FC's cause as Jaryan was. In fact, Al Amna was able to thrive in his playmaking role largely due to the freedom afforded to him by Jaryan, who did the dirty job in midfield, apart from exerting a calming influence on the team.
"Being the captain, I took on the responsibility and made it a point to communicate with him (Al Amna) right from the start. He is an experienced player and had a great season. We got together very well on the field and even off the field, we were close. Obviously, I listened to him and learnt from his experience as well. We shared our knowledge with each other," elaborated Jaryan on his midfield partner.
The Aizawl skipper has stepped up even when Al Amna was sidelined with an injury midway through the season. It was most evident in Aizawl's home game against DSK Shivajians on 1st February where Al Amna went off injured midway through the first half. It was Jaryan who took charge, driving his team forward until the very last moment when Brandon Vanlalremdika scored a crucial winner. But it was his skipper who was named the man of the match for a performance which the Liberian deems was his favourite of the season.
"The game against DSK (Shivajians) at home was my favourite game. (Mahmoud) Al Amna got injured and he told me, "You have to lead." I put in extra work in that game and we won in the final minute," he recalled.
As the dust settles on the 2017 I-League campaign, Khalid Jamil and his merry band of players reign supreme over the seasoned campaigners like Mohun Bagan, Bengaluru FC and East Bengal. But the miracle was spun around the steel that was Alfred Jaryan whose relentless outings played a huge part in Aizawl FC's voyage into an uncharted territory.
The plaudits showered upon the likes of Al Amna, Kamo Bayi, Jayesh Rane and Brandon Vanlalremdika but Alfred Jaryan wouldn't have minded one bit. For that was exactly what he was - a dark knight who drove Aizawl to its brightest hour. It was no surprise that his peers chose him as the I-League midfielder of the year.
Richly deserved, one would say!