The Indian Super League (ISL), which is only four seasons old, has been very competitive despite only two teams ever winning the tournament. However, all the teams apart from NorthEast United and Jamshedpur FC have at least reached the play-offs or the final once.
When one takes into account the fact that Jamshedpur FC were inducted only last season into the ISL and missed out on a play-off spot by a whisker, it does not reflect well on the Highlanders. Given the fact that football is extremely popular in the eight states from the North-East of India which serves as a catchment area for talent for NorthEast United, it makes for strange reading. Not to mention the fan support the team enjoyed in Guwahati.
Moreover, there was an insistence from the team management that they would consitute the majority of their Indian contingent with local players. “We were very clear that we would select players from the North-East. Most of the players in our team are from the under-19 lot and also players from under-20,” one of the owners of the team, John Abrahan had said back in 2014 when the league was launched.
But the approach has not worked for the team. They finished bottom in 2014 but came close to sealing a play-off spot in 2015, finishing fifth under Cesar Farias. They followed it up with a good start in the 2016 season when they were briefly leading the points table. But things went downhill for the team, coached by Nelo Vingada then. They missed out again on the play-offs, falling to a defeat in a crucial final-round league game against Kerala Blasters.
In terms of goals, the Indian players have rarely contributed to the team throughout the four seasons. Only Seimenlen Doungel (4 goals in 2017-18) and Seityasen Singh (2 goals in 2016) have scored more than one goal for them during an ISL season so far. And, Doungel will be playing for Kerala Blasters this season.
Though the team shifted its approach when it came to local players, including several players from the rest of the country after the second season, the graph did not go up. The 2017-18 season saw another forgettable campaign, with the franchise putting up its worst performance ever, finishing bottom of a ten-team league and scoring a mere 12 goals in 18 games.
The foreign player recruitment has also been strange from NorthEast United, especially the case last year. Sambinho, Jose Goncalves and Martin Diaz, signed to shore up their defence were woeful. In fact, apart from attacking midfielder Marcinho, the rest of the foreigners failed to sparkle, indicating a lack of proper scouting and research.
It has put the NorthEast United management on the spot, with the investment (or the lack of) into the squad questioned.
FC Pune City were also a team in the same boat for the first three seasons. But they pumped in the money last season, bringing in the likes Marcelinho (top scorer of the ISL in 2016) and Emiliano Alfaro (incidentally, from NorthEast United) for big bucks. Both of them would enjoy solid seasons as the Stallions reached the play-off stage for the first time ever. Another ex-player in Wellington Priori also came back to haunt Northeast United after Jamshedpur FC signed up the Brazilian in the winter window last season.
Coming into the upcoming season, Dutch coach Eelco Schattorie and former Chelsea manager Avram Grant, who were brought in mid-way through last season to carry out a firefighting job after Joao de Deus was sacked, will continue as head coach and technical advisor.
They have brought in some interesting foreign signings with former PSG man Bartholomew Ogbeche headlining the list which has several relatively unknown but promising young foreigners. NorthEast United badly need Schattorie and Grant to mould the squad into a winning unit capable of coming up trumps in big moments.
The Highlanders will want success desperately this season, for if they do not achieve it this time around, they could end up as being branded as a team present in the ISL only to make up the numbers. An aspiring team would not want that tag. Time to buckle up!