The Highlanders approach is admirable, but must be blended with pragmatism to deliver results in the short term.
14th November 2017, the occasion was NorthEast United FC’s kit launch for the new season of the Indian Super League (ISL) at an upscale mall in Guwahati. Club owner John Abraham in tow with the then head coach Joao Carlos Pires de Deus in the media interaction later, talked about building a new youth culture at the club, having academies built to aid in a steady supply of talent to the club. They aimed to build a team with young players that have the hunger and the desire to win and to do away with the practice of bringing in an ageing star as a marquee player.
Fast forward to 12th January 2018, NEUFC lost yet another game, this time to ATK, their 6th in the 9 games played this season and after having sacked their coach De Deus following just one and a half months in-charge. At the halfway stage of the league, with the other teams improving, barring a miracle the playoffs are looking like a distant dream for the Highlanders.
The problems at NorthEast United have been the same over the years, with the league getting more competitive every season and with every other team doing their bit to keep up in the competition, the Highlanders aren’t being helped by their stagnant recruitment policies which has meant that they lack characters in the team that can dig deep and grind out results.
It would be safe to say the top management including Abraham hasn’t quite been ambitious enough in getting and building a quality Indian core at the team from the very first season of the ISL, the players that have come in over the years and the retentions haven’t quite helped raise the performances of the team.
Table toppers Chennaiyin FC, for example, have made it a priority to retain the services of Jeje Lalpekhlua in their ranks. The India international is a proven performer in the league and the Marina Machans are reaping the benefits of building their side around the Mizo Sniper. Likewise, a few other clubs have put thought and investment into getting good Indian players in their side and supplementing them with quality foreign signings to get all departments covered in the squad.
It would be unfair though to level all the blame alone on the Indian contingent at NorthEast United, as the foreign reinforcements too for this season, with the exception of a few haven’t cut the mustard. Thus the team’s performances have been lacklustre and the results disappointing. Moreover, NEUFC’s perennial struggles mean they are hardly an appealing destination for foreign stars. A situation that is reminiscent to the one at erstwhile Premier League giants Arsenal, who have been falling down the pecking order every year.
At the kit launch, Abraham talked at length about the football schools NorthEast United have been building and stressed on the importance of being self-sufficient by bringing in local talent straight from their academy set-up. Though the returns of setting up academies in the region and getting experienced coaches to work with the local lads are likely to be highly rewarding in the medium to long-term, it is implausible to solely follow such a long roadmap for success in a result based business like the ISL.
It is especially unfair on the fans who have had to deal with the mediocrity of their team for a long time and is already having an impact, with the attendances at the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium plummeting to an all-time low.
It won’t be wrong to say that Abraham and his team have fallen short of keeping their promises and things have definitely not gone the way they expected them to. The management needs to do a complete rejig of the existing recruitment policies at the club to actually make a difference in future editions of the competition and to not just merely make up numbers.