Khel Now goes behind the scenes at the Northeast powerhouse to uncover the secrets behind its tradition of producing quality youngsters.
As former Shillong Lajong FC Coach Thangboi Singto took on the dais for the last I-League pre-match press interaction, all focus was on his opposing coach Khalid Jamil and Aizawl FC, who were just a step away from winning the league. Thangboi, though, had his own ideas. On being asked whether his young side feels the pressure of the league, he replied, “Once you have signed the professional contract, you have to take the pressures that come with being a footballer. It doesn’t matter if you are 18. World over there are lots of 18 years old playing the game at the highest level.”
You can’t discount what Lajong have done this season. North-East India’s oldest participant in the I-League have brought in younger talent and given them a platform to perform at the highest stage of Indian football. This season, the team played with a squad whose average age was just 21 with at least 7 U22 players in their squad, and yet finished 5th. Thangboi Singto was not too bothered about this and he wanted to be involved in the title race. He wanted to win the game against Aizawl FC, not to be the party spoilers but because he believes his team goes into every game wanting to win it.
Modern football in India has three pilgrimages: Goa, Kolkata and the North East. Goa gets it footballing panache from its Portuguese and Brazilian forefathers, while Kolkata has been known as a footballing powerhouse for over 13 decades now. These two states have continued their rise (and occasional drop) and domination over the years and there has been an interesting saga for the third region in discussion.
North East has always been known to be a powerhouse in the game, as the players blessed with physical attributes one needs to play at the top level. And Football to the North-East is what it is to the Brazilians. It’s the No.1 game in the North-East of India. One club which revolutionized the game in the region is Shillong Lajong FC, which was the first to play in India’s premier club football competition, the I-league.
Lajong joined the I-league 2nd division in 2008-09 and qualified for the senior league in the first attempt. More than the game, it was the hope to take the local talent onto the main stage was what worked on the minds of the owner Larsing Ming Sawyan and the Sawyan family. Former assistant manager and Head Coach Thangboi Singto also believed in the same philosophy and had almost been ever-present at the club.
Be it the 1-1 draw against Aizawl or the 3-2 win over DSK Shivajians away from home or the game against debutants Chennai City FC which Lajong won 4-1 the Reds started with the 8 U-22 players. It would be considered a brave move in the world of football but what amazed us most was the manner in which these young boys play. There is no apprehension just confidence and belief in their ability. The players showed enormous concentration and maturity in putting a united front against any opponents in the country.
In fact getting young players to come out and play for Lajong is at the core of Lajong’s philosophy and the same has been the trend for the last three years now. Rightfully, Shillong Lajong can be termed as India’s Southampton FC, a football club in the Premier League which has been the feeder club to EPL heavyweights Liverpool and Manchester United time and again.
I-league U-22 player rule requires each team to start 1 U22 Indian player in a game. 4 Foreigners could also be a part of the starting 11, one amongst them to be an Asian. A lot of I-League teams see the U22 rule as a bit of hindrance to their plan to compete and hence have occasionally found ways out more typically substituting him early on in the game. Lajong, on the other hand, have gone to the other extreme, fielding a team full of U22 players. The club, in an undocumented rule, recruits only Northeast players. The only exception to the rule are the goalkeepers, for which Lajong have had to look outside the Northeast of India.
Each season for the last number of seasons, Lajong has had a number of it, senior squad, leaving for other teams. Losing players to rival clubs would have seen any other side fall back to the relegation battle, but not Shillong Lajong FC. Backed by a tactically astute coach in Singto (so far), Shillong has managed to play the ‘Southampton’ role well.
Outgoing players are replaced by the in-house raw young talent who takes up the role of his senior colleague. Southampton, in the recent past, has had a lot of outgoing transfer activity with both Manchester United and Liverpool.
Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Morgan Schneiderlin, Nathaniel Clyne and several other players have left the Saints, but the team has managed to cut it out in the Premier League, easily proving that they belong to the stage with its famed academy. Shillong Lajong has had a similar philosophy over the years. The Reds have always believed in their philosophy and have created a niche for themselves.
The club & the coach absolutely believe that the talent at their disposal is the finest available in the country and hence, give the youngsters enough chances to excel. Former India U-19 keeper Vishal Kaith played two seasons of Shillong Premier League before being handed the No. 1 jersey for Lajong. With 4 Man-of-the-Match awards in this I-League, he has made the keeping slot his own.
Konsham Chinglensanna Singh already has a national team call up at just 20, and partners fellow academy player Nim Dorjee Tamang in the heart of the defence. Ever present Pritam Kumar Soraisam plays at left-back, clocking near perfect minutes both in the I-League and Shillong Premier League.
Right Back is the only position where an over-22 player has regularly found a place with Aiborlang Khongjee & Samuel Shadap being preferred. Find of the season Isaac Valsanwma partners Japanese Yuta Kinowaki in the mid-field. Isaac has been a revelation, probably one of the best mid-fielders in the I-League. Bipin Singh, who has five assists & a goal to his name, takes the left wing position with Shillong boys Redeem Tlang and Rupert Nongrum fighting it for the right wing role.
Redeem got the all-important goal against DSK Shivajians. Young Mizo Striker Samuel Lalmuanpuia is Lajong’s 2nd highest goal-scorer this season getting 3 important away goals and keeping Shillong’s Brazilian import Fabio Pena out of the squad. This is a well-rounded team supporting I-League’s top goal scorer Dipanda Dicka in getting his 11 goals and 2 assists. A host of other U-22 players such as Hardy Nongbri, Alen Deory, Milan Basumatary, Novin Gurung, Phurba Lanchepa, Joseph Lalfaqzuala, Jacob Lalbawmia are all ready to take the battle to the next level.
Former Reds across India
If you look at India’s current roster and try picking the best midfielder more often than not it is going to be the Shillong talisman Eugeneson Lyngdoh. The Bengaluru FC midfielder has everything a midfielder needs to excel. He’s comfortable on the ball, good positioning sense, an eye to read the game and an almost-perfect dead-ball capability.
Eugeneson started his career at Rangdajied United, but it was at Shillong Lajong where, under Pradhyum Reddy, the medio excelled. Lyngdoh made 32 appearances in two seasons and for the Reds and scored 4 goals. The current BFC roster has at least 4 other players who have played for the Reds for a considerable part of their career; Goalkeeper Lalthuammawia Ralte is a Lajong boy, Lalchhuanmawia or Chhuantea as he is known as spent 3 seasons with the Reds, Malswamzuala was at the Lajong Academy and Seminlen Doungel played a season for the Reds.
The first season of Indian Super League in which Shillong Lajong FC were co-owners of NorthEast United saw 14 Lajong players don the white of NEUFC. The partnership soon ended and NorthEast is still trying to secure their place in ISL semis. Who knows maybe the young Lajong squad could have had the ownership & legs to drive the legs for NorthEast United’s quest for glory. Rocus Lamare was one of the first Lajong boys to go out and won the I-League with Salgaocar.
Aiborlang Khongjee followed suit playing for both the Kolkata giants and playing for NorthEast United & Mumbai City FC before coming back and playing again for Lajong last 4 seasons of I-League. Ongnam Milan Singh who has had a fantastic ISL and I-League season notching 4 goals & 2 assists also plied his trade for a couple of season with Lajong.
The Lajong Academy is one of the finest in India in terms of nurturing talent, easily portrayed by the number of players making it onto the highest stages. Boys from the age of 11-12 join the academy and start their education and playing career, grinding it out with the U-14 team at the beginning phase. They turn into seniors in the academy and play the age group I-League.
It is a constant process of evaluation and evolution. A player is helped by at least 11-12 professionals over his youth journey, right from the age of 11-12 till the time he’s 18 and ready to play the big league. The club has immense belief in the quality at their disposal, and they do not pull it back. At any given time, the Academy hosts at least 60-65 players at the youth level, which gives Indian football a lot of hope.
The club ensures that they are always out there organising Grassroot programmes to catch players at a young age and also ensure all talent in the region is harnessed by Lajong as the players for tomorrow.