Inaugural National Football League winners JCT FC got relegated for the first time in their history this season. JCT, the runner-up in I-League as recently as 2006/07 season got relegated because of their inferior head-to-head record against fellow bottom placed clubs – HAL SC and Air India.

JCT lost crucial players at the end of last season including the likes of Karanjit Singh, Penn Orji and Baljit Singh. Both, Karanjit and Penn proved to be crucial players for the top two – Salgaocar and East Bengal respectively. Inability to field a competent foreign contingent also hurt the club from Phagwara – Daniel Bedemi and Keke were signed but not registered for I-League. Initially, JCT also missed the services of long-time coach Sukhwinder Singh, who was busy with the Indian Junior Team. And finally, the poor condition of the turf in Ludhiana removed any chances of the team playing good football.

In the end, JCT got relegated on the last day as HAL miraculously came back to snatch a 4-2 away win against Dempo. JCT didn’t win a single away game – losing nine out of thirteen. Their home record was comparatively better having won six out of thirteen matches. However, any Indian football fan who knows Sukhi’s JCT will vouch that they used to be one of the toughest away destinations in India; a fact not expressed by the season’s statistics. The most damning aspect was, of course, lack of proper strikers – a fact lamented by Sukhwinder early in the season. The Millmen scored a measly 17 goals in 26 matches – a pathetic record by any standards.

So what does JCT’s relegation mean for Indian Football?

A set-back in Youth Development

Over the last few years, JCT had built a solid reputation of bringing up players from their own academy. Along with Salgaocar, they were one of the few top division teams which had a proper youth structure. They would send scouts to local colleges and hold football camps in numerous locations to uncover hidden talent. With their relegation, Indian football might take a step back in terms of youth development (hopefully Salgaocar’s success will dilute the effects).

A lot of clubs these days go for quick fix rather than investing in long term plans. Mohun Bagan can fork out Rs. 2 crores for Odafa Okalie while the Mohun Bagan-SAIL Academy struggles for lack of funds. East Bengal, on the other hand, fields players who are not from their own Academy for the youth I-League. The likes of Churchill Brothers also tend to spend more on foreign players and less on youth development. JCT has also taken a completely indigenous path in recent seasons – involving former players in coaching duties, rather than employing foreign managers.

Tough times ahead…

JCT’s condition is a bit like AFC Ajax’s condition. Ajax, one of the best academies in the world, has struggled to hold onto their talents in the last decade. Similarly, JCT keep losing the likes of Anwar Ali, Karanjit and Baljit. Even this season, they have already lost seven players from last season’s squad to clubs like Lajong and United Sikkim. Ajay Singh, a star player in an otherwise horrid season is also being linked to Mumbai FC.

Lack of funds due to playing in I-League Div-2 can dent their academy’s future. JCT has spent considerably in the last few years to improve their academy. They were one club which had complied with a considerable number of AFC criteria points because of that. This spending also meant that they had less money to give player salaries and sign big name players. JCT also has a tie-up with Wolverhampton Wanderers of England. This tie-up is yet to yield any notable result but it remains to be seen what impact JCT’s relegation has on the tie-up.

Body Blow for Football in North India

Punjab and North India, in general, which has contributed the likes of Jarnail Singh, Inder Singh and Kuljit Singh in the past, finds itself without a representative in next season’s I-League. Latest news suggests Indian Arrows might locate to Pune or Kolkata so i-League football will have zero presence in North India next season. Punjab Police and BSF are the other two teams which have played in top division from the north; these institutional sides are no longer footballing forces. New Delhi Heroes, regular in second division didn’t take part in this year’s edition. A big problem of Indian football has been its concentration in selected parts of India – Goa, Bengal, Kerala, North East. With the relegation of JCT, Indian football just became even more polarized.

In a recent interview, Samir Thapar, the financial muscle behind JCT for decades expressed his apprehensions about the future of JCT FC. He mentioned that since clubs make very little from I-League it is getting increasingly difficult for JCT Mills to sponsor the club. Relegation to second tier won’t help JCT’s finances in any way.

However, Indian football fans will be hoping that JCT FC doesn’t go the Mahindra United or FC Cochin way. If they do, it will be a dark day for Indian football.