Located at the altitude of 1800 metres, Gangtok’s Paljor Stadium is one of the highest football stadia in the country. This beautiful stadium, which traces its origin back to 1939, has more often than not remained stangnant during the past few decades when it comes to sports activities. However, when the Sikkim Football Board, with the help of the legendary Baichung Bhutia, founded the United Sikkim Football Club, things took a turn for the better for the scenic stadium in Gangtok.
The birth of the ‘Snowlions’ has turned the stadium into a hotbed of football activities during the past eighteen months. With United Sikkim now having qualified for the I League, the country is all set to get a taste of top division football at the Paljor Stadium. Despite expectations not being sky-high from the fans regarding United Sikkim, considering it being the club’s first ever season, the football aficionados in the state would be hoping for a strong season in the league and in cup competitions from their boys. The club’s co-owner Bhaichung Bhutia, also a member of the announced squad, has already underlined survival from relegation as the club’s primary target.
United Sikkim coach Philippe de Ridder is a popular name among the Indian football fraternity. During his time in this country, the Belgian manager has managed a few Indian clubs, East Bengal being the most notable one.
When De Ridder took over as the coach of the United Sikkim side, it was quite a different challenge for him. His first task was to help his boys in clearing the hurdle of I League Division 2. ‘Indi’, as De Ridder is popularly known, didn’t disappoint the fans of the club. Inspite of losing Renedy Singh and Sushil Kumar Singh, two important players of the club, to Meghalayan top division club Shillong Lajong FC, De Ridder helped United Sikkim wade through the waters of I League Division 2. Playing the final rounds in front of their own fans at the Paljor Stadium, United Sikkim FC topped the final standings with 22 points to their name, thus ensuring that the Bhaichung Bhutia co-owned club plies its trade in the I League for the 2012-13 season.
Once their I League qualification had been guranteed, Philippe de Ridder set about making wholesale changes to his squad. The club held various trials for youngsters, thus leaving no stone unturned in their search for the best possible side. The Belgian coach has, over the course of the past few months, put together a side blended with talented youngsters and seasoned professionals.
With the signings of experinced campaigners like Anwar Ali and Zenith Mashangva, and the presence of the likes of Bhaichung Bhutia, the youngsters will surely find little problems in settling into the United Sikkim squad. Taking a look into the side, De Ridder seems to have cleverly put together a very bright side, certainly capable of challenging for a spot in the top half, although aspirations of winning the league title seem a bit far-fledged at the moment. It is in the cup competitions, i.e. the Federation Cup, Durand Cup and the IFA Shield, where United Sikkim can realistically look forward to challenging for silverware.
Tae Yoon, Monotosh Ghosh
Anwar Ali, Harpreet Singh, K. Romen Singh, Nim Tshering Lepcha, Rahul Jaiswal, Sandesh Jhingan, Sanjeev Mali, Syed Farid
Beikhokhei Bengaicho, Hardip Singh Saini, Lineker Machado, Nima Tamang, Raju Debnath, Sahinsha Ansari, Salau Nuruddin, Sheikh Shabbir Ali, Thupden Bhutia, V. Lalthanpuia, Zenith Mashangva
Bhaichung Bhutia, Budhiram Tudu, Nadong Bhutia
United Sikkim has already brought in a couple of foreign players in the form of goalkeeper Tae Yoon of Korea and Nigerian midfielder Salao Nuruddin. Two slots for foreign players still remain to be filled. Among defenders, Anwar Ali stands out as the most experienced whereas the club can also rely on the services of local lad Nim Lepcha, among others.
The midfield looks fairly strong with the likes of Beikhokhei, Zenith, Debnath , local player Nima Tamang, etc. Bhaichung Bhutia, Budhiram Tudu and Nadong Bhutia are the three forwards named in the squad. With Bhaichung past his prime, the mantle will lie on Budhiram Tudu to come up with the goals. The former East Bengal striker, who failed to make it past five league appearances with the Kolkata giants, would surely like to prove a point with United Sikkim. The club also has a few talented players in its reserve team to pick from, when the right time arrives.
Despite being a home to thousands of football lovers, Sikkim has never had one of its clubs locking their horns against the country’s best sides at the top level. This has all changed in recent times with the emergence of United Sikkim Football Club. The state that has gifted the nation with one of its best ever strikers, can finally have top division football in its own backyard. It is now in the hands of Indy’s boys to weave their magic with their feet against the best players in the country.
Photo credits: www.indianfootballnetwork.com , www.article.wn.com , epaper.timesofindia.com