In a do-or-die encounter on April 6, NEROCA found themselves trailing by two goals to Kerala Blasters in the pre-quarter final of the ongoing Super Cup. Desperate to reduce the deficit, coach Gift Raikhan played his trump card in Ningthoujam Pritam. ‘’Since deliveries from the right-wing weren’t coming, the coach brought me on. He told me if I wanted a place in the starting XI, this is your chance,’’ Pritam told Goal.
And to Raikhan’s contentment, the attacker stood up to the occasion. Coming off the bench in the 52nd minute, the Manipuri was involved in two of the three goals netted by the I-League outfit which confirmed their berth in the next round. The 12-minute rampage, where NEROCA score thrice, put Kerala Blasters to the sword.
‘’I didn’t even see the second goal of Kerala Blasters because I was getting ready in the dressing room. I entered the pitch thinking we’re trailing by one goal and believed we could somehow pull one back to level things. I didn’t think of any comeback; I was just focused on performing to my best on the right-wing. At full-time, I was surprised at the score-line, not at seeing us score three but at seeing two from their end. When did they put up two goals?’’
Since joining NEROCA on a loan spell in 2016, Pritam has become a vital cog in the attack. Often brought on as a substitute to create an impact, the Mohun Bagan academy product's crosses from the right wing are lethal.
‘’I feel comfortable on the flanks because playing as a striker can put pressure (on me). Also, I’m not tall enough for the position which could be troublesome. But from the right-side, I can easily make goals. Also from the wings, I get a better view of the field which wouldn’t be possible upfront because a lot of speed is demanded up there. I take my time to build from the wide areas without any stress on my mind,’’ he explains.
Clinching the championship in the I-League 2016-17 second division, NEROCA were promoted to the top flight this season. Recalling his days in the second tier of Indian football, Pritam says, ‘’Since there wasn’t much competition in the second division, things were not so intense. In the second division, it’s pretty easy to compete whereas in I-League, every opponent is highly competitive.’’
He further adds, ‘’In the I-League, we had to be fast and couldn’t afford wasting time. We had to be tough throughout because the players were skilled and experienced. Having built our foundation from second division, we are going head-to-head against the big clubs this season. It felt good facing big names like Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, et al.’’
Pritam believes his strengths lie in his pace and his quality of crosses. His long-range passses and diagonal balls have produced a lot of goals for NEROCA. The winger has developed a good understanding with NEROCA's midfielder Ronald Singh.
‘’We train together in practice sessions. I’m just a couple of years elder to him, so we joke around; we are like brothers. He doesn’t run like me, rather he dribbles as soon as he gets the ball. I’ve spent two years with him now, in the second division and this season, so our gamereading has improved,’’ reveals Pritam.
Following their dramatic victory over Kerala, NEROCA are now preparing to take on giants Bengaluru on April 13. Although The Eagles have been tagged as favourites for the Super Cup title, Pritam believes one cannot write off the Manipuri outfit. ‘’No team is big or small, things can change at any time in the match. They can win by a huge margin but so can we. We will respect them but we can challenge them,’’ he asserts.
While NEROCA’s journey this season will depend on Friday’s clash at Bhubaneswar, Pritam has his plans set. ‘’I haven’t been involved in transfer talks right now but I plan to do it after Super Cup. I have been speaking to my agent and hope to negotiate something at the end of the tournament. I didn’t want my focus to be diverted right now.
"If an offer comes from an ISL club, I will surely go. The coach might not like it but if a player changes clubs, it is for the betterment of his career.
"The coach has his own mindset but a player has his own too. If there’s a long-term deal, there are chances for improvement,’’ he concludes.
Pritam’s loan spell at NEROCA ends on May 31. While his future remains uncertain, what one can be assured of is his relentlessness on the pitch. Every time Pritam started for NEROCA this season in I-League, they have remained undefeated. And each time he was brought on, he has influenced the nature of the game. It is only fair to say, in Ningthoujam Pritam, NEROCA have a game changer.