United Sikkim‘s qualification from I-League Division 2 to the top flight of Indian Football within two years of its formation was greeted with optimism and frenzy with fans calling it a dawn of a new era in Indian Football and a boast for the football in the North-East. A certain section of pundits and fans however were cautious about the club’s growth and were of the view that the club needed to do more than just winning the division-2 in order to establish themselves. Twenty-One rounds into the I-League, these fears have been proven right as the club finds itself second-last in the table and are all set to get relegated.
Inexperience came to haunt United Sikkim in there very first tournament – Federation Cup, as they lost all there three matches without failing to score a single goal. United Sikkim to start off with, had a very strange transfer season as they let go of their foreign players like Quinton Jacobs and Daniel Bidemi, who were the stars of division-2 campaign Even important Indian players like Govin Singh, Thoi Singh and Mumtaz Akhtar were transferred to other clubs. Though some high profile Indian players were linked with the club, the club strangely opted to go for inexperienced players from some local North-Eastern clubs and division-2 clubs. In a way, this was a commendable effort to boost hopes of local footballers but it would eventually prove to be a major factor in their performance.
The selection of foreign players also left a lot to be desired as United Sikkim brought in foreigners who were new to the I-League. Despite the presence of quality Indian goalkeepers, the club roped in a goalkeeper in the foreigner slot which was quite surprising. The foreigners, as expected, were slow to settle down.
I-League however began on a positive note for the Snow Lions as they defeated Salgaocar 3-2 in the opening match and visiting teams found Gangtok a tough location but the team was exposed as soon as the away matches started. In their first away match Prayag United defeated then 10-1 and the way Ranty Martins and Carlos Hernandez toyed with their defence clearly showed the inability of their team to compete at the highest level. Coach Philippe de Ridder resigned following the Prayag routing and was replaced by Baichung Bhutia on an interim basis until Nathan Hall took over the reigns.
The continous changes at the helm of affair affected things for the worse as each coach brought in new ideoligies and methods. A series of changes took place after Nathan Hall’s appointment with three of the foreigners released and new foreigners were added to the roster but the inexperience of Indian players has continued to haunt the team even going on to the extent of saying
I’m playing with a squad that was built by Philippe De Ridder (former coach) with absolutely no balance. They have no experience. If we have three or four players out injured, I have big problems.Most of the other top teams in the competitions have at least two players for each position. I don’t have that. In my whole squad, I have three defenders and then academy players. So you look at my team as compared to Dempo, I’ve got 18-year-olds and 19-year-olds. They have 27-year-olds with experience
Things did improve under Hall but the lapse in concentration specially in the dying moments on the match coupled with injuries to key players cost them 3 points on more than one of occasion. As things stand only a miracle can save United Sikkim from relegation but the club and it fans can be proud of the way there club has fought with the big boys in its first season. United Sikkim’s presence in the I-League gave boast to the football in the North-East and brought the region to the fore not just in India but across the world. The rise of players like defenders Sandesh Jhingan and Safar Sardar along with midfielder Lineker Machado have been the positives for the club. This experience of playing in the top flight of Indian Football, that too just a few years after their inception, will hold them in good stead. However, they will certainly target to do better in Cup tournaments like IFA Shield and Fed Cup where their performance has been very prdinary this season.
The challenges ahead for the club are manifold with the most important being that of retaining the current set of players who will be tempted to leave if the club gets the axe. United Sikkim let go of there settled players last year and expectedly suffered. The management will no doubt like to hold on to there young but talented players. Another target for the management will be to establish themselves as a powerhouse in the North-East. Clubs like Ar-Hima and Royal Wahingdoh have existed for long and have established themselves as regional powerhouses and a major challenge for United Sikkim will be to establish themselves as there have been doubts over their regional supremacy ever since they qualified with a clubs alleging that the AIFF was favoring them.
Things didn’t improve for United Sikkim as IFA Shield Winners Prayag United eked out a 1-0 win at Gangtok thanks to a 28th goal from Ranty Martins. United Sikkim started offensively as Pablo Rodriguez Aracil and Nurudeen Salau created trouble for the Prayag defense but failed to find the back of the net. Rakshit Pawar had a good game under the bar for the hosts denying the visitors on several occasions. Prayag endured some nervous moments at the end to take home the three points.
Other I-League Matches
The Round 21 kicked off with IFA Shield Runners-up East-Bengal taking on Air-India at home in a match where they were expected to walk away with all three points. Having played a number of matches recently, Trevor Morgan rested Uga Okpara and Khabra for the match. Air-India started the better of the two sides with Elijah Junior troubling the East-Bengal defense but East-Bengal settled down soon and created a host of chances but were denied by Air-India goal-keeper Sukhwinder Singh. After a barren first half, Chidi Edeh gave the Federation Cup Champions the lead when he scored from a Brasisic cross. East-Bengal had chances to kill the match off but were wasteful in front of goal and were punished when Henry Ezeh scored in the 91st minute to equalize. The loss has dealt a severe blow to East Bengal’s title hopes.
Sunil Chhetri played his first match of the season at his home ground, Ambedkar Stadium, Delhi as I-League leaders Churchill Brothers took on a determined ONGC side who have developed Ambedkar into a fortress and this match was no different as Churchill Brothers were held to 1-1 draw by the Oilmen. Both sides created a flurry of chances in the first half but neither of the sides could break the deadlock. In the 47th minute Steven Dias’s shot deflected into the ONGC goal as the Goans went ahead but in the 60th minute Yusa Katsumi’s corner ricocheted off Beto’s thigh to enter his own goal. This was the last bit of action in the match which ended at 1-1.
Salgaocar continued their upward march under coach David Booth as they beat a gusty Mumbai FC side 1-0 thanks to 58th minute Milagres Gonsalves goal. The match got off to a pacy start with both sides trying to gain the upper hand in the opening exchanges. Nicholas Rodrigues looked lively for Mumbai while Gabriel Obatola was the man for Salgaocar early on. The second half began on a defensive note but Milagres Gonsalves scored form a Fulgencio Cardozo to seal three points for the hosts.
Day two of Round-21 kicked off with Pailan Arrows taking on a rejuvenated Bagan side looking to avoid the relegation. The Mariners raced to a 3-0 lead inside the first twenty minutes thanks to a opening goal from Aibor Khongjee and a brace from Tolgay Ozbey. Arrows however pulled one back just before the halftime when Shaiju Mon scored from a Dhanpal Ganeshan pass and Seminlen Doungel further reduced the deficit in the 47th minute but Karim Bencherifa coached squad hung on to claim three crucial points to take a huge step towards avoiding relegation.
Looking to get their campaign back on track, defending champions Dempo squared off against a confident Sporting Club de Goa side and things turned from bad to worse for the Armando Colaco side as they went down 1-0 due to an own goal by defender Rowilson Rodrigues. Sporting were the better side throughout the match as the trio Juanfri, Ogba Kalu and Dawson Fernandes troubled the Dempo defense time and again. Dempo looked blunt throughout the match and the result has ended any hopes of retaining the title for the defending champions. Sporting’s recent form has been breathtaking and they are the only side with a 100% win record in their past five matches, after winning just once in ten rounds before that.
The last match of the round pipped Pune FC against Shillong Lajong. The marquee signing by Shillong Lajong - Edinho Júnior, signed from Blackburn Rovers in a first move of its kind in Indian Football, justified the hype surrounding him as he headed Lajong into the lead in the 13th minute to stun the home-crowd. Boima Karpeh however equalized in the 51st minute after he replaced Douhou Pierre. The match was played at a high tempo with the goal-keepers from both the teams coming into action every now and then. Edinho Júnior put Lajong back into lead in the 56th minute but Boima Karpeh leveled the scores again in the 59th minute and with both sided looking content with a point , the match saw no further action and ended 2-2.