When Shillong Lajong qualified for the I-League in 2009, thus becoming the first ever club from the northeastern region to ply their trade in the country’s top division, their promotion was met with tremendous jubilation by the club’s fans in the Meghalayan capital. Having waited for so many years for this moment, their ecstasy was understandable. The club made a decent start to the 2009-10 season.
The highlight of that season though, came in Guwahati, when the ‘Indian Reds’ reached the final of the Federation Cup, eventually losing to East Bengal in penalties. However, poor conversion rate at home, and disastrous results away from home, condemned the club to relegation in their first ever season in the top flight, with the side finishing bottom of the table eventually. Lajong, however, made their way back into the top division after winning the I League 2nd division title in the 2010-11 season, playing the final stages of the tournament at their home turf in Mawkasiang, Shillong.
Lajong began the 2011-12 season with an impressive campaign in the Federation Cup. Playing their group stage games at the Balewadi Sports Complex in Pune, Pradhyum Reddy’s boys topped their group to reach the semi-finals of the tournament. After losing their first game 1-3 to Goan giants Churchill Brothers, Lajong shocked Mohun Bagan 3-1 in their next game.
A 1-0 victory over local rivals Royal Wahingdoh ensured semi-final qualification for the Shillong-based I League club, by virtue of having scored more goals than Royal, who finished level on points and on goal difference with Lajong. Pradhyum Reddy’s side dominated their semi-final game against a more fancied Salgaocar side. However, poor finishing from the Lajong frontmen proved costly, as Edeh Chidi snatched a late winner for the Goans, to knock them out of the tournament.
Despite the agony of narrowly missing out on a final berth of the Federation Cup, Shillong Lajong went into the Durand Cup brewing with confidence. A narrow 2-1 win over Indian Air Force was followed by a 3-1 victory over Sikkimese giants United Sikkim. Both these victories over their lower league opponents in the group stage, ensured a place in the semi-final for Pradhyum Reddy’s young brigade.
The semi-final encounter against Churchill Brothers, however, turned out to be a rather forgettable experience for the northeastern club. With Beto and Steven Dias in top form for Churchill throughout the game, the Lajong defense came a cropper against the Goans; and despite going a man down in the second half, Churchill went on to win the game 4-1, ending Lajong’s hopes of playing in the final of the country’s oldest tournament.
With semi-final appearances in the Federation Cup and the Durand Cup, Lajong were in a confident mood before the league commenced. The ‘Indian Reds’ kicked off their league campaign with a goalless draw at the Balewadi against Pune FC. They followed it up with a 1-0 home win against HAL. However, the Shillong-based side failed to put up a consistent showing for the better part of the season. The side’s away performances, in particular, were horrific, to say the least.
In 13 games away from their fortress of the JN Stadium, Shillong Lajong conceded 31 goals, while winning only two of these games, with both these wins coming against the two bottom-most sides in the league, HAL and Pailan Arrows. Even more dreadful was their goal-scoring record at home. In their 13 games in Shillong, they could score merely 12 goals, with 3 of these coming in a losing effort against Prayag United.
Despite their poor finishing form, Lajong, however, did manage to fashion five wins at home, all of them by single goal margins, the most significant of these wins coming against East Bengal in February. These wins turned out to be quite important in Lajong’s quest for survival, as they eventually finished 10th, thus staving off relegation by a couple of places and 8 points. Their stuttering away record, which included 8 defeats, however, quashed any hopes of a top half finish for Reddy’s boys.
All in all, it was a rollercoaster campaign in the I League for Lajong. Despite bringing in quite a few players into the club at the start of the season and in mid-season, Lajong failed to significantly improve their performances on the field. In fact, had it not been for the underwhelming campaigns of HAL and Pailan Arrows, Lajong could well have found themselves in the midst of a relegation dogfight. However, considering it was only their second ever season in the I League, a 10th place finish isn’t, by any means, a poor job by the North Eastern outfit.
The IFA Shield campaign turned out to be a major disappointment, as they bowed out of the tournament with consecutive 3-0 defeats against Bhawanipore and East Bengal.
Highest points of the season
- Reaching the Federation Cup semi-final after narrowly beating local rivals Royal Wahingdoh in the group stage would be one of the sweetest memories of the season for the Lajong faithful.
- The 3-1 victory over Mohun Bagan in the same round would also rank very high among the club’s fans.
- The 2-1 win over East Bengal in the home leg of the I League was one of the best performances by the team this season, with Liberian stalwart Johnny Menyongar putting up a stellar show.
Lowest points of the season
- Shillong Lajong suffered some nightmarish results against Goan clubs in the I League this season. In their eight league games against Goan opposition, Lajong lost seven and drew one. It isn’t a surprise then, that some of their heaviest defeats came against Goa-based clubs.
- A 5-0 defeat against Dempo and a 6-0 loss to Churchill Brothers at Goa, illustrated Lajong’s frailties at the back.
- In their last away game of the season, the ‘Indian Reds’ suffered a humiliating 6-1 defeat at the hands of Kolkatan giants Mohun Bagan. This was followed by a 3-5 home loss to Prayag United. These losses constituted some of the lowest points of the season for the club.
Best player of the season – Johnny Menyongar
Johnny Menyongar was brought in at the beginning of the season from United Sikkim FC, to boost Shillong Lajong’s attacking options. With his skills and trickery, the Liberian international midfielder didn’t take long to make himself a favorite among the fans. Menyongar put up some commendable performances in the league, and was instrumental in helping Lajong stay up in the top division. Eugeneson Lyngdoh too had a very good season with the club, playing a crucial role in wins over HAL, Pailan Arrows and East Bengal.
Most disappointing player of the season
James Gbilee started the season with some impressive performances in the Federation Cup. With expectations high on him, Gbilee failed to replicate his Fed Cup performances in the league. As the season progressed, Gbilee’s disappointing run of form alongside Christopher Chizoba forced the club to bring in new strikers into the club, in the form of Matthew Osvaldo Mayora and Sushil Singh.
Blooding in the young
In December, the club management decided to promote four junior players, Lalnunmawia, Joy Mrong Kharraswai, Tuishim Mashangva and Ronald Zothanzama, into the senior team after some impressive performances by these talented youngsters for the junior side. Lalnunmawia and Ronald, in particular, have already been given several first team opportunities with the senior team after their promotion from the junior side.
The twelfth man
Despite a mediocre season, the fans were always there to cheer for the ‘The Reds’ in their home games. Even when the club had to play a couple of their ‘home’ games in Guwahati due to the renovation of the JN Stadium in Shillong, thousands of Lajong fans travelled from Shillong to watch their beloved club play. Prior to that, Lajong’s ‘home’ games at the Khuman Lampak Stadium in Imphal were witnessed by thousands of Lajong fans in the city.
With the team doing well in patches this past season, the Lajong faithful would be hoping for a more consistent showing from the side next term. A finish in the top half of the league table would perhaps be a realistic target for the club next season.
Written by TheHardTackle’s Guest Author Bhargab Sarmah
Follow the Author on Twitter – @BhargabSarmah