The AIFF XI, as they were initially called, was a brainchild of then national team coach Bob Houghton. The philosophy behind the project was to bring together a select bunch of U-21 players with an eye on qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. The team was initially supposed to play in the I-League division-2 without any foreign players but the closure of Mahindra United prompted the AIFF to allow the team to play in the I-League, a decision that proved to be a masterstroke. The team in its very first season , under the guidance of Desmond Bulpin proved its detractors wrong and finished a creditable ninth position, playing without any foreign player. The high point of the season was however a stunning 5-4 victory over giants Mohun Bagan in which striker Jeje Lalpekhlua scored four goals. Overall Jeje scored 13 goals and finished as the top Indian I-League goal-scorer.
A host of players exited the Indian Arrows at the end of the 2010/11 season and the Pailan group took over the team. The team was rechristened as Pailan Arrows and Sukhwinder Singh was asked given the responsibility of the team. The 2011/12 season however was a not great year for the developmental team as the team finished second from bottom, struggled to score goals and managed only two wins in the I-League. Late in the season the team adopted Rob Bann ‘s philosophy of passing football and shunned the long ball strategy for which they had been widely criticized by the football pundits. Alwyn George was spotted by Rob Bann, joined the team in the second half of the season and became the talk of the town following some impressive performances as a play-maker.
Arthur Papas was appointed as the coach of the team the following season and the team immediately became the flavor of the I-League. Playing a possession brand of football, the Arrows displayed tremendous flexibility as Papas rotated his players brilliantly across various positions depending upon the opposition. The Arrows stunned a number of teams in their campaign with the pinnacle being a 2-0 win over Goan giants Dempo in their own backyard. The players adjusted brilliantly to the various formations Papas used and the likes of Milan Singh and Shouvik Ghosh became household names. It was heartening to see the players build up the play patiently and build up play right from the back rather than launching the ball upfront – a trait seen rarely in Indian Football .
The success of the last season means that the fans were looking forward to Pailan Arrows excpectantly. The disbandment of Arrows means lesser playing time for the U-23 players. The age group teams in India hardly play an international friendly and the Arrows was perfect platform for these young players to test themselves against more experienced players. The Arrows provided a platform for young players to hone their skills and get valuable match experience to help them make a smooth transition into the senior levels. The importance of Arrows had risen all the more with the opening of regional(U-16) and elite(U-19) academies. The cream of the regional academies are chosen for the elite academy and the Arrows could have proved to be a perfect platform for the graduating players from the elite academy to play in the I-League with any real pressure of delivering results.
The Arrows project has brought into prominence several players. Among the first batch of Arrows players, the likes of Jeje Lalpekhlua, Lalrindika Ralte, Manandeep Singh and Raju Gaikwad are not only household names but have made it into the senior team as well. Jeje Lalpekhlua at the moment is one of the best young strikers in India and even had a trial at Rangers in Scotland while Ralte is slowly becoming one of the best left wingers. The second batch of Arrows saw Alwyn George burst into prominence with his exceptional play as an attacking midfielder or a support striker. India has seen very few playmakers and that makes Alwyn one of the most unique players in the nation at the moment. The third season brought to light the likes of Holicharan Narzary, Milan Singh and Shouvik Ghosh and the trio was called up for the national team camp.
The Arrows had surely became a supply line for the national team and a lot of players from the Arrows have cemented a place in the national team and many of them are knocking on the door of national team. The closing down of Arrows would indeed have an adverse effect on the supply line of football players for the national team. Playing together for Arrows helped in developing understanding between the players which was an added bonus when these players play for the national team
The U-23 players often have to warm the benches of bigger clubs and hardly get playing team and hence a stint at Arrows provided them an opportunity to get playing time so that they could easily walk into clubs after their stint at Arrows. The fact that the clubs were chasing a host of Arrows’ players this transfer season testifies the importance of the Arrows. Moreover with clubs preferring to play foreign striker, Indian strikers in general get very few chances and in this regard the Arrows provides a perfect opportunity to get playing time. The emergence of Jeje, C.S. Sabeeth and now Alywn George and Holicharan Narzary underlines the importance of Arrows in developing the Indian strike force and the discontinuation of Arrows is indeed a major blow for the young strikers in the nation.
The Arrows was one project for which the AIFF had earned praise from both the fans and the experts and with the establishment of regional and elite academies , the youth development program in India was moving in the right direction. The disbandment of Arrows hence has indeed come as a rude shock to the football fraternity as only days back it was announced that the Arrows would not play the 2013/14 season of I-League. One of hopes for the sake of Indian Football is that the Arrows will be back in the 2014/15 season.