The head coach of the Imphal-based club assured the team will bounce back in the league next season.

The All India Football Federation (AIFF)’s decision to scrap off the remaining four rounds of fixtures in the I-League last season helped a few clubs to take a breather after they were in relegation scrutiny. Mohun Bagan were the runaway winners of the league but teams like Aizawl FC and Gift Raikhan led NEROCA FC were languishing in the lower half of the league table with the constant worry of relegation on their minds.

NEROCA who were ninth just ahead of Aizawl and AIFF developmental side Indian Arrows, feel lucky that they could evade relegation and the humiliation that comes with it. However, it can be inferred from the league table that the difference in points between second-placed East Bengal and ninth-placed NEROCA is only four points. This proves the stern competition in the league for the other positions, as the Green and Maroons up top were miles apart from the rest of the competition.

Yet, NEROCA head coach Gift Raikhan assures that the Manipuri outfit will definitely come back stronger next season.

“Mohun Bagan were clear winners, they showed the gap all the other clubs had with them and were rightfully awarded the championship. No one can deny their superiority this season. They showed class, application and consistency throughout. They are a big club and we must learn from them.”

“We didn’t have a good season. Though we had three games left, I feel we were lucky to escape relegation this year. Lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic actually helped us save blushes and remain in the I-League, ” Gift Raikhan told The Times of India from his village Mapao Zingtun – 25kms away from Imphal.

He went on to emphasise the reasons for their struggle this season, as he continued, “NEROCA went through a big financial problem before the start of the 2019-20 season. All the first-team players were released since there was no surety of them fielding an I-League team. Finally, the team management managed to float the senior team and players were selected very late into the season. So, the local players’ selection, as well as the foreigners’ selection, was not good.”

“I also arrived late after resigning from Gokulam Kerala, so we didn’t have a good pre-season with a settled squad. I hope whenever the next season starts we will have a good time to prepare for it. I’m hopeful that we will make a turnaround and play much better.”

The Manipuri outfit is going through severe financial constraints as several players wait for their dues. However, Raikhan assures them that the club will honour their contracts.

“I am acting as a bridge between the management and the players. I can only say that the club is going through a severe financial crisis because of the lockdown but will definitely honour the contracts, no one will be cheated, everyone will get their dues before leaving. Players have the right to ask for money but everyone is quite understanding of this situation,” Gift Raikhan assured.

A coach’s life is not easy and the 38-year-old has been in the circuit for many years now. Therefore, the gaffer has rarely got this much time to spend with his family and due to the lockdown, he is currently spending time in his big joint family.

“I am playing with my sons, nephews, nieces in the courtyard, on the roof in the village field. We have a joint family of seven brothers and a sister. Apart from a couple of brothers, all stay in the village, so I am having a pure family time after a long long time and enjoying every bit of it.”

“I am also engaged in online coaching workshops arranged by Coaches’ Association of Manipur andam sharing my experience and also getting fresh ideas from the young coaches, learning new methods from them. I will be refreshed once the lockdown is over and we return to the field of action,” Gift Raikhan concluded.

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