The Highlanders reached the playoffs, before losing to Bengaluru FC in a dramatic manner.
If there was one team that underwent transformation, it was NorthEast United. Under the ‘returning’ Eelco Schattorie, the Highlanders managed to transform themselves into a well-knit side with foreigners taking responsibility and homegrown players stepping up the steam whenever the team needed. They needed the thrust, after a controversial off-season that juggled with several reports of ownership and financial troubles at the club.
Drawing against FC Goa on the opening day of the season 2-2 showed the slowly-disgruntling fans that this season has something in store for them to be excited for. It unravelled exactly like they had expected it to. 17 games later, NEUFC were in the knockouts, for the first time in the history of the competition.
Seven wins and eight draws may not be the exact image of the team that plays the semi-finals, but NEUFC deserved their spot. They had fought back from crucial positions and were helped on by both their foreign and local players equally. Manager Schattorie, too, did good work in assigning responsibilities.
Later into the season, they qualified for the latter rounds of the Super Cup, but lost to Chennaiyin FC after getting a walkover against fellow North-Eastern club NEROCA FC in the first game. The players looked a little tired coming into the affair, but the season was certainly a success for the John Abraham-owned club.
Fact Sheet For Indian Season 2018-19
Season Finished: 4th
Games Played: 23
Win %: 34
The only Indian Super League team to have an Indian pre-season, it probably helped the side acclimatise to the climate of the hills better. At home, the conditions suited most players. They won their first fixture against Guwahati Town Club 6-0 on 3rd September and then went on to defeat Shillong 1st Division side Laban SC 4-0 five days later. After these two games, they flew to Imphal, where they lost against I-league side NEROCA FC by a solitary goal.
Top Three Performers
Underperformer of the Season
TP Rehenesh conceded five goals, in five matches.
Rehenesh lost his place to Pawan Kumar as the first-choice goalkeeper. The 26-year-old also got suspended for violent conduct.
He played five matches, conceded five goals, and kept two clean sheets. All in all, compared to his teammates, Rehenesh had a below-average season.
Top Three Performances
1. NorthEast United 2-1 Bengaluru FC
2. Chennaiyin FC 3-4 NorthEast United
3. Mumbai City 0-2 NorthEast United
Coach’s Report Card
The team was as good as its manager. Schattorie, after proving his mettle at the Kolkata maidan in his first sojourn in the sub-continent, returned last season to ride a sinking ship. In tow with the director of football Avram Grant, the 47-year-old transformed a side from poor to good.
Given more time, he probably is on way to make the Highlanders even better. With the sort of tactical astuteness Schattorie already possesses, a bit of financial backing can take the club to the next level. The club, though, should start looking for more pan-Indian players in the mould of Borges, a warrior who has given them a better footing every time he has walked out on the pitch and not just entrust their faith on the players born and bred on the hills.
The Super Cup was a learning curve, but did not serve too great a purpose for any club. The first match ended in a walkover as NEROCA FC, in a tussle with the AIFF, did not come out to play. In the second, two-time ISL champions defeated the club 2-1, courtesy goals from Mailson Alves and Anirudh Thapa, a player who effectively took Borges’ spot in the Indian national starting line-up.
Borges, though, had scored the opening goal.
Lessons To Be Learned
There are two lessons that the players at the club must learn: do not leave it too late, and to contribute more even in their fringe roles. The team scored a lot of late goals and earned points. A little bit of initiative earlier in the game could’ve converted the draws to wins, it seems. There is still a need of a proper goalkeeper and a midfielder who can anchor things. Borges may have done well, but will have his off-days at times.
The anchor would then take the team beyond the threshold. Also, goalkeeping has continued to be the club’s Achilles heel and must be addressed to change the fortunes.
Manas Pratim Kashyap
Honestly, the recently concluded season was huge for NorthEast United. It was our best performance in ISL history, and Eelco Schattorie was brilliant with his tactics.
Many ISL clubs have bigger transfer budgets than us. But Schattorie and NEUFC management made some smart transfers, and got in players like Ogbeche. The former PSG man was fantastic. Also, this season, we saw a different Rowllin Borges. Everyone knew that the Goan was talented, but then Schattorie added new dimensions to Borges, and he has become a better player now. Schattorie was amazing with his rigid, rock-solid defensive tactics. Only injuries denied us a place in the final, otherwise I think we could have beaten Bengaluru in the second-leg.
I personally feel, NorthEast are going to be better and stronger next season.