For couple of seasons preceding the recently concluded one, Shillong Lajong have been also-rans in the I-League. A club operating on a modest budget, Lajong didn’t quite succeed in making much of an impact in the I-League since being promoted back to the top-flight in 2011. After a season under Pradhyum Reddy, the club brought in Scottish coach Desmond Bulpin to try and help the club make the step up in Indian football. Sadly, things didn’t seem to be working out with the Scot in the first half of the season; and after a string of bad results, he was relieved of his duties, perhaps a bit prematurely. Thangboi Singto, the assistant coach, took over the main duties, and helped the club stave off relegation in the final third of the season. Singto, a man who has already been at the club for a few seasons, was given the reins for 2013-14 season too, much to the surprise of observers.
At beginning of the season, not much was expected of Shillong Lajong. The club had brought in a few players during the summer, and boasted mostly young talents, but with a shortage of experience at both the managerial and playing level, added to the strengthening of the other I-League clubs’ squads, few would have been willing to put money on the Reds finishing in the top half of the league. Lajong, however, began their campaign with a stunning 3-0 victory over Dempo in Goa, with Cornell Glen, the summer signing, starring in the victory. Despite the brilliant start to their campaign, Lajong stuttered in their next four games, all at home, picking up only a couple of points from them. The Reds had some visible problems at the back, and the 4-0 home loss to East Bengal laid these bare to everyone. Thangboi Singto went on rectifying his side’s defensive frailties in the next few games, and a slightly lesser exuberant approach was seen from Lajong. Following the drubbing by East Bengal, the Reds went on a six-game unbeaten run, before narrowly going down to Bengaluru FC at the latter’s den. While the improvement in the side’s game was largely down to a much-improved defensive showing, Thangboi Singto’s continued faith in some of the young team members also helped in bringing out improved showings from the latter.
The Reds gradually went on picking up the points, and despite an uncharacteristic 5-1 away loss to Sporting Clube, Singto’s boys won a few vital games to make their way up the table in the next couple of months. Lajong’s improved showing even put them in contention for the title at one point, albeit any hopes of winning the league were too far-fetched. The club went into the Federation Cup full of confidence following their impressive I-League run, and the Reds started off the cup campaign with a magnificent 4-0 thrashing of former I-League champions Salgaocar FC. However, in their next game, the Reds put on an absolute horror show, as they went down 6-0 to Mohun Bagan, which put paid their chances of making it to the semis. The game again brought to the fore the weaknesses of the team, and it quite clear that there was still a lot of work to do in the remainder of the I-League season. Lajong ended their Federation Cup campaign with a 4-0 win over Mumbai FC in the final group game. They continued their I-League campaign following the Federation Cup on a rather shaky note, picking up just 3 points from 4 games. With hopes of finishing in the top half suddenly hanging in the balance, Lajong won two of their last five games, one of them a 3-0 win over eventual champions Bengaluru FC, to clinch an unprecedented sixth-place finish, the club’s best ever position.
While Lajong’s high league position surprised a few observers, the club proved that it is possible for low-budget clubs to do well in the top-flight if they can groom young players and have a solid transfer policy. While many clubs went on changing their foreign players, Lajong kept their faith in the four men, and the latter repaid the club with some solid performances. There is no doubt that the Shillong-based outfit has taken a huge stride forward this season under the stewardship of Thangboi Singto. The Manipur-born coach has been brilliant in his management of the squad, especially the young players, and has been able to bring out the best from them. Boithang Haokip has had the best season of his career, while the likes of Milan Singh, Lalchhuanmawia, Lallawmzuala, Jibon, Redeem Tlang, etc. have all been used effectively throughout the season.
An aging Cornell Glen has been used shrewdly by Singto, and the former World Cupper has been able to stay fit and scored some crucial goals throughout the season. Brazilian import Uilliams had a slow start to the season, but was extremely crucial in the second half of the season. The two other foreigners, Minchol Son and Taisuke Matsugae, have been critical to the club’s excellent season too, with inspirational defender Son leading the team from the back and Matsugae playing a starring role in midfield. The most under-performing player has perhaps been Subhash Singh, who is regarded as one of top talents in the country. Subhash has had a hard time keeping his place in the team, and hasn’t been able to score too many goals. Robin Gurung, another summer arrival, hasn’t really justified the hype surrounding him during the season. Although the young Sikkimese defender has been excellent at times, he has been quite rash on a few occasions. Easily one of the best young defenders in the country, Gurung’s first season at Lajong has shown that he still needs time to truly mature into a top-quality defender. Fortunately for both Subhash and Robin, they both have time on their hands; and with a brilliant man-manager like Thangboi Singto at the helm, they can be extremely crucial in taking the club forward in the next few seasons.
Lajong’s youth policy and faith in the coach can usher in a new era of success for the club. The club has already bolstered its squad by bringing in David Ngaite from Rangdajied United, while quite a few youngsters will be looking forward to make their marks this season. While the defence may need some short-term solutions, the overall squad for next season will be up there with some of the best. There is no doubt that everything is in place for the start of a new period for Lajong, a period of competing with the big boys for the major honours. It is a long-term process, consistently fighting for the titles, but if the club can continue progressing at the same rate, Shillong Lajong fans can look forward to jolly good times ahead.