Udanta Singh has developed into one of India’s foremost attacking talents. He is set to play a prominent role for Bengaluru in Sunday’s ISL final against Goa

There is a story about how Bengaluru FC signed Udanta Singh. Early in 2014, the club had been alerted to the potential of a young attacker at the Tata Football Academy. BFC hit upon an idea to help the head coach, Ashley Westwood, assess him: why not invite the TFA over for a couple of friendly games?

The Jamshedpur side wanted to play a few practice matches in Goa first and then head south; BFC insisted that schedule did not suit them. And so the TFA team travelled to Bengaluru, for one game against BFC’s reserves and another against the senior team.

When Westwood watched a 17-year-old Udanta worry John Johnson and Curtis Osano — his two strong centre-halves — his mind was made up. “Ashley called me 10 minutes into the game; he wanted me to sign him immediately,” recalls Mandar Tamhane, BFC’s chief technical officer. “I said TFA would not release him before the end of the U-19 I-League season.”

The two clubs eventually came to an agreement: Udanta would join BFC in the summer. “Before he left Bangalore, we made sure we got his signature,” says Pradhyum Reddy, then BFC’s assistant coach. “Because we knew if he went to Goa, somebody else would have made a bid for him.”

If there were any doubts over that decision, they were quickly dispelled. Udanta finished that U-19 I-League season as the competition’s top-scorer, helping TFA claim the title. In the years since, he has developed into one of India’s foremost attacking players, a vital, dizzyingly quick presence on the wing for club and country. “In our teams — India and BFC — the moment Udanta gets the ball, we just put our head down and run,” Sunil Chhetri said last season. “Because we have to reach the box as soon as possible. We won’t catch him but we try.”

The essence of Udanta’s play was captured in BFC’s second goal against NorthEast United on Monday, during the second leg of their ISL semifinal. A NorthEast corner was headed out, and the ball broke for Udanta on the edge of his own box. He looked up, poked the ball through an onrushing Redeem Tlang’s legs, and then sprinted off into the distance, across the length of the pitch. By the time Tlang had lumbered back, Udanta had taken a shot and watched it come back off the post. Dimas Delgado calmly buried the rebound.

Udanta finished the last ISL season with one goal and seven assists; on this campaign, he has scored five times already, to go with his three assists. His evolution into a goal-scorer has been exciting to behold. “Last season, as a right-winger, I just wanted to provide some assists and didn’t target shooting,” says Udanta. “This season I made my decision. I’ve been taking more shots. Sunil [Chhetri] bhai wants me to score, and I want to score too.”

As a youth player, Udanta had mostly been a No. 9, but at BFC, Westwood believed he was better used out on the flanks. Settling into that role has taken him a while but under Albert Roca and now Carles Cuadrat, the 22-year-old appears to have added composure and a definite maturity to his game. “The instinct to score goals is there — he’s had that from the beginning,” says Reddy, now technical director at FC Pune City. “It’s learning to score goals from those wide positions that he’s added. He can now cut inside and score — he has learnt that playing with Sunil.”

Crossing, by Udanta’s own admission, is not his strongest suit, but it is something he is working on. What has improved, however, is his ability to track back and do defensive work — an essential duty when he turns out for the national team. “At our clubs, we play along with foreigners. I know they can hold the ball and put the ball into space. In the Indian team, we may lose possession in midfield. So I have to be in a position where I can defend,” he says. When Chhetri does call it a day, Udanta will have to take over as India’s primary goal threat. “Sunil bhai is the best in the country; he’s an inspiration,” he says. “It’s not easy to follow him.”

That Udanta is one of the quickest players in the land is not in doubt. BFC exploits that quality to the hilt, and there is now an electric buzz of anticipation around the Sree Kanteerava Stadium when he is played into space. For Sunday’s ISL final, the boy from Moirang will figure prominently in both teams’ plans. “Everybody knows I am fast,” Udanta says with a grin. “Everybody wants to hold me and stop me. But I want to show them my pace. Just like I did in the last game.”

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