The Northeast outfit may have failed to capture the title on the final day of the season but they won millions of hearts and minds in their first campaign in the top flight.

The 2017-18 I-League season is now done and dusted. This edition of the league saw new champions in Minerva Punjab who held off pressure from three other teams on the final day of the season to emerge victors and became the first team from Punjab to win the I-League after JCT Mills had won the then National Football League (NFL) way back in 1997

Minerva were deserving winners at the end of the season and their triumph augurs well for the growth of the sport in India, as like last season ( Aizawl FC) new champions are emerging from places other than the ones considered traditional strongholds, like Kolkata and Goa.

The Warriors rightly merit all the plaudits that have been coming their way and even though no one really remembers who came 2nd, the real story of the season in all fairness has been NEROCA FC’s incredible run in their maiden foray in the top division. The bravehearts from Manipur were in the hunt for the title up to the final day of the campaign, but in the end missed out agonizingly to Minerva Punjab by only three points.

Securing promotion is tough but staying up is even tougher. So, even after coming into the top flight on the back of winning the 2016-17 I-League 2nd Division title unbeaten, no one was giving NEROCA a chance. With a squad devoid of any star names and operating on a shoestring budget it looked difficult for the Men in Orange on paper.

However the team overcame adversity with a display of immense grit, resilience and team spirit to come up trumps. Gift Raikhan who has been the coach ever since NEROCA started playing at the national level played his cards very well and retained most of the players from last season with whom he won the 2nd Division title including Kiatamba Junior and Felix Odili Chidi who played stellar roles this term too. With clubs in Indian football undergoing a rebuilding phase almost every season, Raikhan really profited from having a stable squad in his hands, players who were used to his philosophy and hence he was successful in drawing the maximum from them.

Also, the additions of Haitian Fabien Vorbe and Australian Aryn Williams proved to be brilliant as the duo were impressive in midfield, an area in which the team appeared to be short at the beginning of the season.

NEROCA won the 2nd Division league title last season and finished second in the top flight this year

Under the tactically astute Raikhan, NEROCA were one of the most well-drilled sides in the competition and displayed a propensity to fight till the end, nine points of their final tally of 32 coming as a result of goals scored by them after the 80th minute. The Men in Orange proved to be a tough nut to crack in their away games, losing just once in their nine trips.

Being a left-back himself during his playing days, Raikhan has done a good job setting up his defence with players like Tondonba, Kiatamba Junior, Govin Singh and the veteran India international Gourmangi Singh who were brilliant throughout the season in the NEROCA backline. The Orange Brigade were the best side defensively in the league, conceding just 13 times in 18 games, quite a remarkable feat for a team who were playing in the top division of the country for the first time ever.

Manipur has always been a bountiful land of footballing talent in the country. A healthy number of Manipuri players are plying their trade in almost all the teams in the two top leagues of the country, the I-League and the ISL. It is a state that has produced players of the calibre of Renedy Singh and Gourmangi Singh and more recently provided as many as eight players in the squad for the FIFA U-17 World Cup.

For a state that has always been at the forefront in terms of talent produced, it is a travesty that there was no club from Manipur playing in the top flight in these 22 years. However, NEROCA FC’s success story in establishing themselves as a top fight team should now inspire a host of clubs from the state to follow the same route.

The team from the hills have been tremendous in their debut season

NEROCA’s greatest success is that it now provides a platform to the up and coming talent in the state to have a professional career here rather than try their luck elsewhere. Singam Subash Singh, one of the brightest stars of NEROCA’s season and also the top Indian goalscorer in the league echoes a similar sentiment. Subash was 27 and entering the peak years of his career and despite interest from other clubs in the country, he made the decision to return to his homeland Manipur and play in the 2nd Division with NEROCA in 2016.

In an interview with ESPN he said, “When I was growing up in Manipur, NEROCA was the club everyone wanted to play for. When we had to make a career out of football we had to leave the state because there was no national-level club in the state then. When I realised I had the chance to play for them and perhaps even bring them to the I-League, it was an easy choice to make.”

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Football is an important part of the Manipuri lifeline and as the legendary Renedy Singh once remarked during the course of the season, “Football, like blood flows in the veins of the people.” NEROCA have always enjoyed good support from their fans since their 2nd Division days and because of the team’s incredible run this season, the joy of their fans has known no bounds.

The home fans at the Khuman Lampak Main Stadium have been very vocal, even on working days ably doing their job as the 12th man. The stadium has had the highest average attendance in the whole of the I-League (21,382) and second only to the JLN, Kochi (Kerala Blasters) among all the 20 teams combined in the I-League and the ISL.

With a passionate management in the background who care for the club like fans and the massive potential of footballing talent available in the state, the future looks bright for NEROCA FC. The lessons learnt from their falling just short of a dream title would hold them in good stead over the course of the coming seasons and it is safe to say that NEROCA are a  powerhouse in the making in Indian football