2017 has been a remarkable year for football clubs from the North-East of India. Aizawl FC clinched the I-League title and within a month, Manipur's NEROCA FC gained promotion to the top tier by winning the I-League second division with an undefeated record.
Tom Landry, former American footballer and coach who won a record 20 consecutive National Football League (NFL) titles, once said that setting a goal is not the main thing. It is deciding how you will go about achieving it and sticking with the same which matters more. NEROCA's success in the top flight has been the result of careful planning, organisation, and execution of short-term targets.
Just over a month back when Goal spoke to coach Gift Raikhan at the launch event of I-League, he stated, "My target is to occupy the third position. As a new club which is competing at the top tier for the first time, I will be happy with a third place."
NEROCA currently sit in the third position on the league table with 11 points from 6 matches, behind East Bengal and Minerva Punjab.
Raikhan, a former Pune FC assistant coach, has now set his eyes on silverware after a steady start to the season. "If I had said that I want to win the league with a debutant team that would have been a very big statement from me. Every coach wants to win and be on top. If we go match-by-match, anything can happen in football," said Raikhan.
To their credit, NEROCA did not waste any time in preparing for life in the top-tier after clinching promotion last season. "We have been preparing since the day we qualified for I-League. Ups and downs are there in football but we are preparing for the top position," said Raikhan.
Their toils in the training ground have certainly borne fruit as they have already managed to steal a point from Kolkata giants, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, this season. They play well on the counter and were organised at the back, denying the illustrious frontlines of the aforementioned teams any space to maneuovre.
"The plan against Mohun Bagan was to stay compact at the back and not give their strikers a lot of space and then hit them on the counter. We did not allow Sony Norde to play. He is the kind of player who cannot be man-marked. We set up a zonal marking trap for him. If he darted in from the left, each player knew what their job was," explained Raikhan after the draw against Bagan.
NEROCA has managed to weave a squad with the perfect mix of experience and youngsters and has also been able to hold on to the core group that won them the second division championship, barring Arata Izumi. Led by Lalit Thapa, a seasoned custodian in between the sticks, the Orange Brigade boasts of familiar names likes Subhash Singh, Sushil Kumar and Saran Singh alongside the local talent pool comprising of Gopi Singh, Ronald Singh and Ningthoujam Pritam.
Each one knows their role on the pitch and the co-ordination between them is evident from their movement both on and off the ball. One such instance that comes to mind is when Varney Kiatamba moved forward to attack a set-piece in the opponent half against Mohun Bagan. On the counter, Kromah was all set to score but for Saran Singh, who was covering for Kiatamba, executing a perfectly timed tackle.
Subhash Singh has been another livewire for the Imphal-based club and scored the winner recently against Shillong Lajong. He has been given the license to swap flanks and has been the linchpin in creating attacks. He has also ably supported Felix Chidi upfront whenever required.
"I know his strong points and I have convinced him to play the way I want him to. Every year we need a different style and he has also agreed to play that different role for the team," acknowledges the head coach.
Raikhan prefers to do his homework before a match and his sharp game reading ability helps in his substitutions. Ronald Singh has been an impact sub who had scored late goals against Chennai City and Gokulam Kerala FC. Eye-brows were raised when Raikhan chose Pritam over Ronald to come off the bench against Lajong when the score was tied at 0-0. "We have a different approach and style for every team. When Ronald came in against Chennai City, I was following a different game plan but against Lajong, I needed Pritam who would cross more into the box than Ronald," reasoned Raikhan as it was eventually Pritam who supplied the cross for Subhash's goal.
Although his side has started the campaign reasonably well, he fears that lack of top-flight experience might dent their lofty ambitions. "We are an inexperienced unit and are still learning our way up. Even within our North Eastern clubs, we are nowhere near their experience. But with the support of our management and fans, and by playing a higher standards of football we hope to do well," aspires Raikhan.
If the Men in Orange keep this form going throughout this season, it would be another huge step towards becoming a household name in the country.