During the early stages of his football career, Edwin Vanspaul wasn’t sure about his best football position. And to an extent today, he is still undecided about it.

“It’s tough to pick one position but I’m enjoying playing as a midfielder now,” Vanspaul told Scroll.in as he braces for another big game in his career when Chennaiyin FC face ATK in the 2019-’20 Indian Super League final.

One year ago, Vanspaul was instrumental in Chennai City’s fairytale run to the 2018-’19 I-League trophy. On Saturday, he has another glittering opportunity to clinch a title for his state team.

Surprisingly, football was not his favourite sport during his childhood days. Following the footsteps of his father, Vanspaul took up hockey at the age of around 10 but since his school in Neyveli did not have any team, he decided to take up football.

“I heard the school was giving away jerseys to children who played football,” he said. “They didn’t provide jerseys to those who played hockey since there were only few children who played. Just for that school jersey, I shifted to football at the age of 11.”

Facing hardships

Born in Kerala, Vanspaul was raised in Neyveli where he endured a tough childhood as his parents struggled to make ends meet. The family had to take a loan to help a close acquaintance but when he ran away, Vanspaul’s family had to cope with a lot of financial difficulties to pay off the remaining dues.

Most of his father’s salary went into repaying the loan amount while his mother, who had moved abroad, would send earnings to support the family. Amid all these difficulties, Vanspaul was struggling to find a break in his football career.

He played in the Chennai Football Association Senior Division League but was not picked after giving trials for Salgaocar FC, Churchill Brothers and Pune FC. After impressing in a short stint with Chennai FC for one season, his professional football career took off when he was roped in by Chennai City FC during the summer of 2016, who back then had just entered the I-League.

“Representing Chennai City in the I-League was a big turning point,” he said. “I was trying to break into the league for a long time, and that was the moment I got a chance to prove myself. I had it in mind that at 24, I should be playing at a top-level club and Chennai City gave me the chance.”

Switching positions

A late bloomer, Vanspaul’s football journey has all been about adapting. When he started for Chennaiyin FC earlier this season he primarily featured as a wing-back under John Gregory before new coach Owen Coyle put him in the midfield.

He had prior experience of playing in that position, but that was way back in 2016. Versatility had always given him an edge over his peers having started his football journey playing as a striker in 2010. It was to be no different in 2020.

“It was always a learning process for me,” he said about playing different roles in his career. “Even though I started as a striker, I played in different positions with whatever opportunities that came my way.”

In his debut ISL season, Vanspaul has been a bright spark for the Chennaiyin FC, who once were stuttering at the bottom of the league before turning things around miraculously to reach the final.

Vanspaul may have no goals or assists to show for his efforts but the local lad has been a driving force in midfield and has complimented Anirudh Thapa magnificently – showing great composure on the ball alongside his excellent reading of the game and his ability to control the tempo.

At first, the 28-year-old found it tough to adapt but with Coyle’s backing, he settled down as time went by.

“Physically it was tough [playing in midfield] so I prepared myself,” he said. “And when you struggle physically, it affects your mental capacity too. Thapa used to guide me about where to run, which balls to chase and how to conserve your energy to play throughout ninety minutes. As a wing-back, it’s easy because you have to go straight and come back to defend but midfield you have to contribute a lot at both ends of the pitch.”

Peaking at the right time

Unlike many footballers, who struggle for game time while making the switch from the I-League to the ISL, the Neyveli lad has been a seamless fit in Coyle’s counter-attacking system. Deservedly, a first-ever national team call-up has followed.

“I was prepared for playing at this level,” he said. “I waited many years for this moment because even when I got an offer in the second year [from Chennaiyin FC], I chose to stay at Chennai City. I played all the games there and gained confidence.”

“I always wanted to get in the I-League first but never thought of making it to the ISL. It feels like a dream playing here and getting a national team call-up is another big achievement. I never expected a call because, in my position, there are better players who are more experienced than me. I’ve just started,” he added.

In the final, Vanspaul will be facing two of his former Chennai City teammates in ATK’s Michael Regin and Michael Soosairaj but friendship will be put on hold. For him, there’s no better way to give back to Chennaiyin FC than winning the title.

“I wish them the best but there will be no room for friendship once the match starts,” he said. “Winning the title for Chennaiyin FC would mean everything after how we started the season. We were down but trained very hard to get here. We won’t give up having come so far.”