What had looked as an inevitable calamity for football fans from the North-East for a while, finally came to pass on Sunday, as United Sikkim’s fate was sealed, as they became the first club to go down this season, with just 15 points to their credit, after 24 games.
Much was expected from Bhaichung Bhutia’s side, when they won promotion last year, but partly due to lack of financial muscle, and largely due to a lack of foresight at several important junctures.
What is clear at the end of this campaign is that the idea to go around holding open trials across the country to select a squad to play in the I-League would never work.
Even though the standards of the I-League are nowhere close to being professional, expecting a bunch of players, many of whom had spent most of their careers as journeymen in local divisions, to take the team to safety, was optimism bordering on madness.
The season started all so promisingly for them, as they put Salgaocar FC to the sword in-front of their fans. However it was as good as it got for them during the campaign, as they went on a 20 game win-less streak after that. Eventually they beat fellow relegation contenders Air India 5-0, to register only their second win of the season.
However by then their fate was almost completely sealed, as the side failed to get the right set-up, throughout the season. Infact Salgaocar recently rubbed it in further, taking revenge for their loss in the first set of fixtures, by thumping the Snow Lions by a scoreline of 9-0, which left most of the United Sikkim faithful with nowhere to hide.
The Snow Lions have not had much to celebrate this season...
Atleast Nathan Hall did not pay with his job for the thrashing. His predecessor Philippe de Ridder had no such luck, as he was instantly sacked after the Snow Lions suffered a 10-1 thumping from Prayag United, under his tutelage.
While whether the decision to sack the Belgian is one for another day, the decision to then go ahead and appoint Nathan Hall, even as coaches like Santosh Kashyap were available, really sealed their fate.
And no, this is not a swipe at the Australian, who from all accounts, improved fitness levels of a below-par squad. However Hall is effectively in his first full-time job and is a relative novice in Indian football, and someone like Kashyap, who apparently was interested in the job, would have been a better pick.
The latter, showed his worth after taking over at ONGC, a club with arguably a smaller budget than the North-East side.
His knowledge of the Indian market, something Hall had effectively no idea of, helped him extract the most out of players like Wahid Sali and Robin Gurung, while using his experience to convert Sandeep Sangha into a central defender, allowed him to catapult the Oilmen up the table, on the foundations of a solid defense.
United Sikkim meanwhile, played some decent football, but ultimately lacked quality upfront and steel at the back, which has eventually led to their relegation. Effectively, a bunch of kids were hoisted on Hall, from which he was expected to build a competitive team.
Even the foreigners that Hall brought in, failed to spark any kind of revival in the club’s fortunes, in stark contrast to the new recruits of Salgaocar, Sporting Clube de Goa, and to an extent, Shillong Lajong.
Of course, the Snow Lions did not have the financial muscle of the above mentioned sides, but that is not the only reason they are going down. Teams like Mumbai FC and ONGC are on a paltry budget too but did well to stay clear of relegation.
The club management must take the blame for this debacle, as they failed to form a proper working strategy after gaining promotion, and thus are now on their way back down now.
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