The Highlanders reached the playoffs for only the second time in the history in the 2020-21 season.

After the end of the 2019-20 ISL season there was a debate about whether NorthEast United interim head coach Khalid Jamil should be made permanent. The former Aizawl FC manager took over the caretaker position after the then Highlanders’ head coach Robert Jarni lost his job in the middle of the season following his team’s dismal position. Realistically, it was too late for Jamil to save their season. The club finished ninth on the table, only above Hyderabad FC.

Cut to the end of the 2020-21 season and we are still having the same debate. However, this time the 43-year-old has much more weight on his side of the argument. After all, he did guide NorthEast United to their highest-ever finish in the ISL and they almost made it to their maiden final – all of this after having taken charge in the middle of the season.

After the 2019-20 season, NorthEast United demoted Khalid Jamil as the coach of their youth team. They decided to appoint Spaniard Gerard Nus as their head coach. Despite having a good start, NEUFC’s season seemed to be falling off the rails, an all too familiar pattern for the Highlanders’ faithful.

But, after a winless streak of seven matches, which included three defeats, the NorthEast United hierarchy decided to act swiftly. And in a decision that came as a surprise to many, the club parted ways with Nus. The Highlanders appointed Khalid Jamil as the caretaker manager for the second time in two seasons.

The sacking of managers is always disappointing. But, in hindsight, Nus’ departure followed by Khalid Jamil’s appointment turned out to be a blessing. The Highlanders under Jamil went on a 10-match unbeaten run, the longest by any Indian manager in the ISL. The 43-year-old guided them to their highest-ever finish, finishing third in the league table. NorthEast’s playoffs qualification meant that Jamil became the first Indian tactician to guide his team to the playoffs.

Performance in ISL 2020-21

NorthEast United Khalid Jamil
Khalid Jamil as NorthEast United coach in ISL 2020-21

Jamil’s influence on the team was evident from Day One. He started his second stint as caretaker manager of the Highlanders with a win over Jamshedpur FC and there was no looking back.

His impact on the performances of the Indian players in the NorthEast roster is also notable. He gave chances to the likes of VP Suhair and Imran Khan and they made the most of them. In defence as well, Ashutosh Mehta and Mashoor Shereef stepped up when needed. There was a visible improvement in the performances of the players who repaid their manager’s trust.

Despite not having the most expensive of squad, Khalid Jamil got the best out of the players that he had. The likes of Federico Gallego, Luis Machado, Dehorn Brown, Idrissa Sylla all delivered when it mattered the most.

The most evident characteristic of Khalid Jamil’s NorthEast United side was their never say die attitude. This made them a very hard team to beat. The Highlanders scored two 90+ minute equalizers to rescue games, including one in the first leg of the semi-final.

They almost came back from two goals down in the second leg as well had it not been for a missed penalty. In his short stint as the manager, Jamil also got the better of both eventual finalists ATK Mohun Bagan and Mumbai City FC.

Khalid Jamil has proved in his short term at the helm of NorthEast United that he deserves a chance to be their manager. He is an experienced campaigner and a proven winner. He previously won the I-league with minnows Aizawl FC. For long, NorthEast United have lacked consistency with their ever-changing roster and managerial team. The appointment of Khalid Jamil can be the first step towards providing a solution to that problem.

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