There are few places in India that can match Shillong’s enthusiasm for football. The attendances at local league games stand witness to this fact. The city’s most popular club in recent years has been Shillong Lajong FC. The club’s presence in the I-League has hugely helped in the further growth of the beautiful game in the northeastern region, and has encouraged other clubs to try and match the reds. The reds first made it to the I-League in 2009, only to go down to the second division in a season’s time. They crawled their way back into the country’s top flight in their first attempt, and have managed to stay up ever since. 2013-14 will be the third consecutive season in the I-League for Lajong. After surviving relegation for a couple of years, the reds have significantly strengthened their squad over the summer, and are aiming to finish in the top half of the table this season.
Goalkeepers: Thuammawia Ralte, Nitin Neel, Kunzang Bhutia and Vinay Singh.
Thuammawia Ralte has been the first-choice goalkeeper at Shillong Lajong for the better part of the last couple of seasons, and the young custodian looks set to hold on to his position this coming season as well. New signing Vinay Singh, an experienced professional, will not only provide competition to Ralte for a first-team position, but will also help in the development of the young goalkeepers in the team. Youngsters Nitin Neel and Kunzang Bhutia, the latter a recent signing from local rivals Royal Wahingdoh, will provide solidity to the goalkeeping line-up, and the club will make sure these bright prospects get ample first-team chances this coming season.
Defenders: Robin Gurung, Lallawmzuala, Rakesh Pradhan, Lalchhuanmawia, Sandeep Singh, Jim Tamang, Wailadmi Passah, Minchol Son and Samuel Shadap.
One of the biggest loopholes in the last couple in Shillong Lajong’s I-League campaigns has been a leaky defense. Under Pradhyum Reddy and Desmond Bulpin, Lajong’s backline failed to perform consistently, and the deference under-performance partly played a role in the club’s failure to break into the top half. Once Thangboi Singto took over the reins from Bulpin in the final third of the last season, a stable set of performances were seen from the back four, which eventually helped the club in staying up.
This season, with high expectations on the team, the onus will be on the Lajong defense to prove its detractors wrong and help in fulfilling the club’s aim for a top half finish. Wailadmi Passah, who has been at the club for quite a while now, and Minchol Son, one of last summer’s arrivals, will form the core of the backline, while Lallawmzuala, Lalchhuanmawia and Samuel Shadap will stake their claim for first team spots too. Youngsters Robin Gurung, Rakesh Pradhan, Sandeep Singh and Jim Tamang will be hopeful of first-team opportunities under coach Singto, and the latter will have several options in his hands to rotate the back four throughout the season. Son and Passah’s performances at the back could have a crucial say in Lajong’s I-League campaign this season.
Midfielders: Boithang Haokip, Milan Singh, Taisuke Matsugae, Jibon Singh, Lalramluaha Hmar, Niwan’o Gatpoh, Bipin Singh and Zodingliana Ralte.
Among the 13 I-League clubs, Shillong Lajong perhaps has the youngest bunch of midfielders. In Boithang Haokip, Milan Singh, Jibon Singh, and Lalramluaha Hmar, the clubs has some of the most talented I-League experienced midfielders in the country. Boithang Haokip has been a key member of the club since the reds first made it into the I-League, whereas Lalramluaha has done quite well in the last two seasons too. Milan Singh and Jibon Singh, both former Pailan Arrows players, will have important roles this season at the club, especially the new arrival Milan, who is being touted as a future Indian international. Japanese recruit Taisuke Matsugae, on the other hand, played an important role in Lajong’s relegation battle in the second half of last season, and looks like a definite starter for the reds’ games, this coming season.
Niwan’o Gatpoh, a tricky right winger, was an important member of Lajong’s 2009-10 I-League campaign, and will add a new dimension to the Lajong side. His marauding runs on the right will be something to watch out for, if he gets a prominent role with the reds. The two other midfielders in the squad are youngsters Bipin Singh and Zodingliana Ralte. These kids will add depth to the reds’ squad, and will definitely have fair amount of chances in the first team, as the season passes. With the plethora of options available to him, coach Thangboi Singto will be able to rotate his midfield throughout the season. However, Boithang Haokip, Milan Singh and Taisuke Matsugae will certainly play the more prominent roles in the team.
Forwards: Cornell Glen, Subhash Singh, Seikhohao Tuboi, Uilliams Bomfin Souza Silva, Redeem Tlang and Shaiborlang Kharpan.
In recent seasons, Shillong Lajong have found goals hard to come by. The season before last, Johnny Menyongar carried the team almost single-handedly up front, and more than made up for the poor conversion rates of other strikers. Last season, with Menyongar not in good vein, the team suffered. Once the Liberian left for Dempo, the team failed to bring in a goal-scoring attacker. This led to a string of poor results, and eventually to the sacking of Desmond Bulpin. Once Thangboi Singto took over, he realized the need for at least a couple of strikers. During the summer, he brought in Pune FC hotshot Subhash Singh, Trinidad and Tobago international and former World Cupper Cornell Glen, and Uilliams Bomfin Souza Silva. Silva is a late addition to the team after the signing of Charles Edoa fell apart due to Visa-related issues.
With Seikhohao Tuboi, once dubbed as ‘the next Bhaichung’, already in the team, Lajong’s forward line-up looks quite dangerous indeed. Cornell Glen and Subhash Singh should be Singto’s first choice strikers, while Tuboi and Silva can be used as the back-ups. This season also represents a huge opportunity for the Manipur-born Tuboi to finally live up to his potential. Despite not being a regular scorer, the club has shown tremendous faith in the 24-year old to retain him for the new season. It would be a big bonus for the club if Tuboi repays this faith with a few goals this season. The club also has talented youngsters Redeem Tlang and Shaiborlang Kharpan in its ranks, both of whom can be used sparingly whenever needed.
After the removal of Desmond Bulpin earlier this year, the burden fell on the-then assistant coach Thangboi Singto to lead the club forward. A man who has been at Lajong for many years now, Singto knows the club in and out. There couldn’t perhaps have been a better person for the job than this man. He successfully led the club through a relegation fight last season, and now shoulders the responsibility of leading Lajong into a good finish in the league. Singto will be encouraged by the squad at his disposal, and should do a decent job with this team. The youngsters in the side will definitely be hopeful of first-team opportunities under him.
With the signings of some top professionals this summer, including Milan Singh, Subhash Singh, Cornell Glen and Uilliams Bomfin, expectations from Shillong are quite high this summer. Unlike in their previous three league campaigns, Lajong should stay out of a relegation battle this time around. The forward-line and the midfield departments at Lajong look quite strong; however, the reds cannot afford to make the same defensive errors they made in the first half of last season. If the defense can hold things tight throughout the season, then a finish in the top half of the league beckons for the reds.
In the Federation Cup, meanwhile, Lajong have been grouped alongside Salgaocar, Mohun Bagan and Mumbai FC. The reds have a very good history in this championship, and with a group of almost equally-matched sides, the reds will fancy their chances of progressing into the semis.