Shillong Lajong were crowned winners of the U-18 I-League 2017-18 after they defeated Kerala Blasters 2-0 in the final at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium in Shillong. Interestingly they didn't lose a single game on their way to clinch the trophy.
However, coach Bobby Nongbet was the last person to believe that his team could clinch the title.
"We were not expecting this. We started off clumsily in the qualifiers. Our game was patchy and not at all promising in the initial stages. But luckily we got the goals when it mattered and qualified for the final rounds," said Nongbet to Goal.
It must be remembered that Nongbet was involved with the senior team at the start of the I-League season and later took over the reins of the U-18 side at the request of the club management.
"I was involved with the senior team when the U-18 team were playing their qualifiers. But after the Indian Arrows match at home, which we won, it was decided that I should train the U-18 boys. First I worked on their physical conditioning as most of them were no where near being match fit. We slowly gained momentum in training. The boys got motivated and the task became easier thereafter," reminisced the coach.
It is worth mentioning that Lajong amassed a staggering total of 23 goals and conceded just thrice in their league campaign. They won 10 of their 11 matches and their only draw came against Rangdajied United back on January 19 when the match ended 1-1.
Nongbet revealed that although he did not tweak much tactically but he made sure that his team adapted according to their opponent's game.
"After we qualified for the final round we analysed our opponents well. We understood their game and prepared accordingly. All top-division clubs in the country are preparing their U-18 teams pretty well as they form the supply line to the senior team. So, it was not an easy job. We set small targets and took each game on their individual merit without thinking of the bigger picture," stated the former youth coach of Royal Wahingdoh.
"The first match against Aizawl FC was the turning point for us. Aizawl U-18 is a superb team and when we got the better of them, it boosted our confidence a lot. They were performing very well in the play-offs and almost every team was worried about their potential. After defeating them, we never looked back."
The AFC A-License holding coach startlingly revealed that instead of the senior team he would prefer to work with the U-18 boys.
"I am more interested to work with the youth team. But let us see what plans the club has for me. Most of the juniors are going to be promoted to the senior side. That's what we do over the years. So if the club tells me to work with the senior team then also it will not be any problem," said Nongbet.
Nine academy products debuted with the senior team last season which included regulars like Kynsailang Khongsit and Kenstar Kharshong. In the upcoming season, Lajong will continue that trend and almost half of the squad will be filled up with academy graduates.