Several top players from across the country as well as overseas have represented the Highlanders since inception.
When NorthEast United FC birthed as a football club in 2014, there was real hope and excitement that it would herald a new dawn in the growth of the sport that has always had a crazy following in this part of the country. However six years down the line, the club’s journey as a professional side has been far from memorable. The high of the 2018-19 Indian Super League season where the Highlanders booked a place in the play-offs dissipated quickly into an all too familiar feeling in the latest domestic campaign, where they finished a lowly 9th.
With the failure of the management every year to retain key players and staff and a visible lack of identity on the pitch as well; the Highlanders faithful have been a disappointed lot over the years.
Primarily considering their performances and to some extent longevity, Khel Now has compiled a best XI that has donned the NorthEast United colours since 2014.
Goalkeeper: TP Rehenesh
This one might divide opinion as the Kerala goalkeeper had a reputation for producing quite a few head-in-the-hands moments. But Rehenesh was on the books of NorthEast United for the first five seasons being particularly good in the 2015 edition pulling off more saves than any other goalkeeper in the league. He was a fixture in the starting eleven for the first four seasons losing his spot only in his final campaign there.
Right-Back: Reagan Singh
The Manipur full-back made his debut for the Highlanders in 2015 and has ever since, gone on to make the all-time appearances record for the club with 69. The 29-year-old hasn’t quite stood out for his ability but has managed to do the job for the club including making 17 starts in the most successful season for NorthEast United in 2018-19.
Centre-Back: Jose Goncalves
The widely-travelled Portuguese arrived in Guwahati in 2017 and was named captain of the side. The season that played out was an utterly forgettable for everyone involved, however, Jose’s performances were one of the bright lights that campaign. A capable defender who was equally good with the ball at his feet, Jose was in ways unlucky to have played in a NorthEast United side that lacked massively in many areas.
Centre-Back: Mato Grgic
The Croatian has possibly produced the best-ever performances for a defender in a NorthEast United shirt. Grgic proved to be worth every penny of the transfer fee involved as he became a vital cog in the Highlanders wheel in the 2018-19 campaign forming a solid partnership with his compatriot Mislav Komorski. He went on to feature 19 times that season before moving to Mumbai City FC in 2019.
Left-Back: Robin Gurung
The Sikkimese defender was on the books of NorthEast United for the first three seasons and featured in 24 games. Playing as a left-back Gurung endeared himself to the fans with his technical ability on the ball and equally adept defending. He has since plied his trade for Jamshedpur FC in the last two ISL campaigns.
Centre Defensive-Midfielder: Rowllin Borges
The only NorthEast United player in this list who was also an Indian national team regular at the same time. Borges was a mainstay in the midfield during his three seasons at the club. Shrugging off the disappointment of the forgettable 2017-18 campaign, he was a player revitalised under coach Eelco Schattorie, scoring four goals and providing two assists playing a crunch role in guiding his side to the play-offs for the first time ever.
Centre Attacking-Midfielder: Federico Gallego
On the basis of footballing ability alone Federico Gallego would still have come up very high on many NorthEast United fans’ nominations. However, the Uruguayan’s indelible talent shone through in his brilliant first season with the club contributing nine goals and assists propelling the Highlanders to the play-offs last term. He picked up an ill-timed ACL injury in the second leg of the semi-final against Bengaluru FC that ruled him out during the crucial part of the 2018-19 campaign. NorthEast United would need to retain the services of the brilliant Uruguayan to provide some resistance to the other sides.
Right Winger: Redeem Tlang
The rise of Redeem Tlang, in a way, represents the success of NorthEast United in helping a young player from the region excel in the top tier of the football structure in the country. The energetic winger put in a string of impressive displays on the right side of the wing emerging as one of the finds of Eelco Schattorie’s squad. He even scored a memorable goal to open the scoring in the first leg of the semi-final against Bengaluru FC. The Shillong Lajong youth product started the last season with a bang but faded away along with the rest of team eventually managing three goals in the campaign. Redeem would be donning the Orange of FC Goa next season.
Left Winger: Seiminlen Doungel
The diminutive winger first represented the Highlanders on loan from Shillong Lajong in the inaugural edition of the ISL. He came back for a second spell in 2017-18 where he emerged as one of the standout performers in an otherwise lacklustre season for the club. The man from Manipur etched his name forever in the history of NorthEast United FC becoming the first-ever player to score a hat-trick, when he did so in a home game against Chennaiyin FC. Till date, he remains the only Indian player at NorthEast United to have ever achieved this feat.
Forward: Nicolas Velez
It would be a sacrilege to not include Nicolas Velez in any NorthEast United all-time XI at least upto this point in time. The Argentinian reserves a following among the Highlanders faithful like no other player as even after leaving the club four years ago, fans still clamour for his signing every season.
Velez was the star turn in the side that missed out on a play-offs spot by a whisker in the two seasons he was at the club. His twinkling footwork and drive won many hearts as well as secured many favourable results for the club. The Argentinian’s productivity during his stint with the Highlanders was unmatched with eight goals and three assists in 25 appearances.
Forward: Bartholomew Ogbeche
The then 34-year-old former World Cupper arrived at the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium with a burgeoning reputation and was named captain of the squad. The former PSG striker led the Highlanders by example and emerged as a goalscorer without precedent at the club notching up 12 goals in 17 games.
The Nigerian’s and effectively NorthEast United’s luck ran out in the first-leg of the semi-final which ruled him out of the return-leg eventually sealing their fate. Ogbeche left along with coach Schattorie for Kerala Blasters in 2019 and vindicated his previous employers’ decision of not retaining him by finishing atop the goalscoring charts.
Eelco Schattorie’s selection as the Highlanders’ best coach so far should encounter absolute unanimity as the Dutch was the only one to guide NorthEast United FC to the playoffs in its entire history. The 48-year-old arrived in the middle of the 2017-18 season as Avram Grant’s assistant before acceding to the top job in the following season. Schattorie transformed the side into an extremely competitive outfit in his only full season at the club.