Shone of their premier players and ravaged by injuries we try to understand exactly who is responsible for the reigning champions’ disappointing campaign. 

For Mizos from all walks of life, for whom football is much more than a sport, April 30 2017 was a red letter day. A fairy-tale that ran through the course of the season, orchestrated by an underdog coach finally came true as their beloved Aizawl FC defied all odds and became the champions of India securing a point away at their northeastern rivals Shillong Lajong.

The triumph was even more incredible considering Aizawl FC were relegated to the 2nd division the season before and could only stay up in the top tier after some clubs withdrew from the competition. The North East of India, that has been an endless supply chain of footballers for the Indian National team as well as the bigwigs in the ISL and I League as well for years now, finally had a champion team of their own.

This season, however, has been of one of stark contrast for The People’s Club; though it would be asking too much from the club to keep up with the same performances this season keeping in mind their obvious limitations. But the fans have been left frustrated by the poor management of the club and the steep decline in the performances of the team from last season. Aizawl FC have won just one game in their last 10 league games and now sit at sixth with only 21 points from their 17 games, following this wretched run of form the club has parted ways with coach Paulo Menezes who had only joined at the beginning of the season.

Debutants Gokulam Kerala and developmental side Indian Arrows despite being below Aizawl FC in the standings are exempt from relegation this season and with the league winding down to its final stretch of games the clouds of relegation from out of nowhere have started to appear in the horizon of the northeastern side. Aizawl FC would desperately want to avoid the ignominy of dropping down while being defending champions.

Paulo Menezes replaced Khalid Jamil at Aizawl’s helm

The ‘Miracle Worker’ of Aizawl FC’s breakthrough season Khalid Jamil inevitably became the biggest talking point in Indian football and the job for his employers to retain him became tougher when the riches of the Kolkata giants came calling. East Bengal who have been on an elusive quest for silverware for over a decade decided to splash the cash and got the former Mumbai FC coach to ink a deal with them for a reported Rs 1.25 crores, making him the highest paid coach in the country.

Aizawl FC’s financial limitations meant the club couldn’t too hold on the stars of their title-winning campaign with many of the players being lured away by big money moves. The squad was raided to the extent that only one member of the starting eleven that downed Mohun Bagan 1-0 in the virtual title decider remained behind for this season. The likes of Al-Amnah, Kingsley, Chullova, Lalruatthara, Jayesh Rane, Albino Gomes, Zohmingliana, Laldanmawia, Kamo Stephane Bayi etc, players who played a crucial part in the team’s triumph last season all left for the riches of the ISL clubs and the Kolkata giants.

In response to these wholesale departures, the team management promoted a lot of youngsters from the reserves into the first team and also brought in a few Mizo lads from the local league and from the fringes of some of the teams in the top tier of Indian football. The club management in their search for Khalid Jamil’s replacement roped in Paolo Menezes and entrusted him with the responsibility of constructing the title defence. The Portuguese had been a part of the backroom staff of the Spanish National side under Coach Vicente Del Bosque between 2013-16.

Apart from that the man had worked as a scout in his native Portugal for some of the heavyweights including Sporting CP and SC Braga. Though Paulo had the experience of working at close quarters with some of the best teams in the world, being a head coach is an entirely different ball game and it was extremely short-sightedness from that powers that be at the club to appoint a first timer foreign coach for the challenging job in light of the transitions the club was undergoing.

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As the club turned to their youth for this season to offset the departures from last season, they should have ideally gone for someone within the club who had worked at the academy setup, someone who has overseen their development from a small age, someone who speaks their language. Having the confidence of such a man at the capacity of a coach would have negated the effects of inexperience in these talented youngsters. Aizawl FC could have looked at neighbours Shillong Lajong for inspiration and example, who were in the same predicament in the middle of the 2012-13 season after head coach Desmond Bulpin was sacked.

The club then put the responsibility of the first team to the then assistant coach Thangboi Singto who from then up to as recently to last season did a brilliant job for the Reds. Despite working with limited resources and building his side with mostly academy graduates every season, Singto has managed to keep to keep Lajong afloat in all these years and in the process have developed players who are now plying their trade for some of the top clubs in the country.

The team has been unlucky with the injuries let alone the departures

In all fairness, the sacking of Paulo Menezes was harsh and seems like an attempt to veil the incompetence on the part of management by heaping the blame on the coach alone. The results under the Portuguese weren’t spectacular but the team wasn’t playing that bad either. It is only natural that it takes time for the players to get attuned to a foreign coach’s philosophies, so the management should have persisted with Menezes’ vision for the club at least for a couple of seasons.

Also, the coach was unlucky with injuries, struggling to field a strong eleven in most of the games. One of the bright prospects to emerge from the first half of Aizawl’s season and someone highly rated by the coach, winger H. Lalmuankima was snapped up by FC Goa in the January transfer window. Speaking to Goal.Com after his sacking, Menezes said “ We had only youth players in our team and most of them did not have prior experience of playing in the I-League. The level of performance the board is expecting with this team it is not possible to achieve with this team. I have always asked for better and experienced players.”

“At times they did not feel the need to reply to my requests. Other times they simply lied to me. For example, they said they are in talks with an ex-East Bengal player but when I contacted the player, he said that nobody from Aizawl contacted him.” 

In what seems to be another questionable decision from the Aizawl FC bosses, they have identified Santosh Kashyap as the man to rescue their fledgeling season and oversee the club’s maiden bow in the AFC Cup. Before taking over the reins at Aizawl FC Kashyap was the coach at Mumbai FC last season and under him, the club was relegated to the 2nd division after seven years and are currently out of business. In his career of eight years as a coach, Kashyap hasn’t had a run of more than a season at a single club, getting the sack at most of them.

Managerial changes in the middle of a season is always hard for the players as they have to quickly adapt to a new philosophy or a new style of play. With a team lacking acutely in self-confidence and a coach with such a poor track record who is also known for his ill-treatment of players at his previous clubs, it might prove to be a recipe for disaster.

Aizawl FC seem to be stuck in a quagmire, much of which is because their own doing. However, a lot of football fans in the country would want to see The People’s Club to get in their groove soon, the same way by which they created history a year back.