Half a decade back, club football in North East India wasn’t in the best of health. With low budgets, clubs struggled to keep hold of their best players and fight for a place in the I-League. Despite a few well-run leagues in the region, few clubs ever came close to playing in the top-flight. So when Shillong Lajong made the cut in 2009, things started changing a bit. The club’s run to the final of the Federation Cup in 2009-10 in Guwahati remains to this date, the biggest achievement of a North Eastern club in the national arena. United Sikkim joined in the party in 2012, with the Baichung Bhutia-co-owned club finishing at top of the I-League 2 table. Despite the Sikkimese club encountering relegation in its debut season in the top division, the promotion of Shillong-based Rangdajied United has come as welcome news for football lovers in the region. Shillong’s big four, Shillong Lajong, Rangdajied, Royal Wahingdoh and Langsning, have shared healthy rivalries with each other in reent times. With two of these clubs in the Indian top flight now, Shillong is ready to add more spice to the I-League this coming season.
Started as Ar Hima FC back in 1987, Rangdajied United have risen to prominence in recent years with some impressive showings in the Shillong Premier League and the I-League 2. Last year, the Blues finished top of the SPL table in the league stage, only to lose to rivals Royal Wahingdoh in the final. A year earlier in 2011, the club had agonizingly missed out on I-League qualification, finishing two places and three points behind second-place qualifiers Sporting Clube de Goa in the final round of I-League 2. At the beginning of the second division tournament this past season, few would have expected the Shillong-based club to go and win the title. Mohammedan Sporting and Royal Wahingdoh, Rangdajied’s local rivals, had started as favourites. But as it panned out, Wahingdoh flattered to deceive for the second successive season despite a strong squad, while Mohammedan Sporting comfortably went on to clinch an I-League birth. Rangdajied United after progressing to the final stages, were left to play catch-up initially in the final round of the league. However, propelled by the brilliance of striker Badmus Babatunde, the club staged a brilliant late onslaught to win the tournament in the final game. With their I-League 2 triumph sealing an automatic I-League birth, Rangdajied fans are sure to forget the disappointments of the past two seasons.
The upcoming season represents a new beginning for Rangdajied United FC and its fans. After living under the shadows of Shillong Lajong and Royal Wahingdoh in recent years, the Blues finally have the stage at their disposal. Treading the I-League waters will however, be anything but easy for them as local rivals Lajong had found out in its debut season in 2010. Santosh Kashyap has been brought in to guide the club through its first season. The former Air India, Mohun Bagan and ONGC coach would definitely look to first ensure the top flight survival of Rangdajied before looking towards other objectives.
The club has a mixed bunch of experienced and young players in the squad. With Marseille youth product and former Churchill Brothers defender Lamine Tamba joining the club in the summer, Rangdajied’s backline will receive a huge boost ahead of the new season. If rumours are to be believed, Air India defender Prateek Chowdhury is set to join Tamba at Rangdajied in the near future. Midfielder Kelechi Okoye already has had I-League experience in the past, playing a crucial role in Shillong Lajong’s failed survival attempt in its debut season, after he had signed for the Reds in mid-season. Nigerian forward Babatunde played a stellar role in getting Rangdajied to the I-League, and will have a big role to play this season, if retained. South Korean attacker Ho Jun Shin is the other foreigner to have been confirmed by the club for the new season. However, a majority of the other players at the club have had minimal experience at the top level. Moreover, it isn’t too difficult to see that the club is a bit short in a few areas, most notably in its midfield. Despite not being the richest of clubs, Rangdajied will have to spend a little more to ensure that the club endures the entire length of the I-League season, and survives.
While Rangdajied United will hope to get past Sporting Clube de Goa in the Fedearation Cup’s round of 16, it is the I-League where Santosh Kashyap’s boys will have to concentrate their energies upon. Although the Blues will start the season as the favourites to go down at the end of the season, the club’s unpredictability, and the surprise element it possesses due to its relatively unknown players, may help it in its attempts to finish above the relegation zone.
On the other hand, Rangdajied’s promotion will have some positive repercussions on football in Shillong. There’s no doubt that a derby against Shillong Lajong will have a lot more at stake this season, considering it will be in the country’s premier division. Local rivalries have blossomed in recent years in Shillong, with the immense popularity of the Shillong Premier League, and a Lajong-Rangdajied derby in the I-League will spice things up further between the fans. For Rangdajied though, it would be wise not to fall into the obsession of doing better than rivals Lajong, and instead stress on the importance of doing well in its debut I-League season.
As Shillong gets divided into two sections of red and blue, Santosh Kashyap’s men will do better looking at the wider picture, and ensure another season in the I-League. With most of the I-League clubs looking strong with some top arrivals during the summer, Rangdajied faces a battle for survival this season. However, with the backing of its large hordes of fans, the blue side of Shillong may yet come out of its debut I-League season in flying colours.