Royal Wahingdoh had a stellar 2014/15 season as the club from Shillong finished third in their debutant season and impressed the fans across the nation with their attacking brand of football.
It was a breezy evening in Aizawl on the 11th of April in 2014. On the last day of the 2nd Division season, Royal Wahingdoh, needing a win to qualify for the next season of the I-League, were playing Kolkata-based Bhawanipore FC, who led the league by a couple of points going into the game. Two years after narrowly missing out on promotion, Shillong-based Wahingdoh, with four minutes to go on the clock,were once again staring at the barrel of the gun. With the score tied at 2-2, the Wahingdoh side, battling with fatigue, having had to play 8 games in 20 days, needed to score in the dying minutes to ensure promotion. A draw would have meant another year of failure at the final hurdle, and league-leaders Bhawanipore FC were quite content to take home the draw and confirm promotion to the I-League. Pushed on by the fear of failure, and backed by a partisan crowd at the Lammual Ground, Wahingdoh succeeded in erasing two years of heartbreak, as forward Bekay Bawar fired the winning goal with three minutes left to play, thereby ensuring the cluba s passage into the I-League. It was the day Royal Wahingdoh came of age. After dominating the Shillong Premier League for a few years, the club finally crossed the one hurdle which had seemed beyond them in previous years.A little over a year later, Royal Wahingdoh have taken the I-League by storm in their debut season, playing some of the most breathtaking football in the competition.
The Royalsa debut I-League campaign began in a rain-soaked Shillong pitch against local rivals Shillong Lajong. Playing in their first ever game in the top-flight, they came from behind to win 2-1 against the more famous club in Shillong. That result set the tone for the rest of their season. Wahingdoh played a brand of football that completely unseated their opponents. The team had some of the finest young talents in the league. Youngsters like Jackichand and Seityasen had shown their mettle in the Shillong Premier League and in the 2nd Division, and together with players like BekayBawar and Loveday, they formed the core of the side in the new season. However, in a much more physically demanding competition, Wahingdoh needed a few experienced heads in the team.
New head coach Santosh Kashyap brought in Densill Theobald and Godwin Franco, among others, into the club, and both of them paid back immediate dividends. The Theobald-Franco became the backbone of the team, the glue that held the side together, as their brilliant partnership in midfield allowed the likes of Jackichand and Seityasen to flourish up front. Jackichand, in particular, was given full freedom to express himself, and despite his defensive frailties, played a major part in Wahingdoha s successful season, as Kashyap built his team around the tiny Manipuri attacker. Harboring a liking for a three-man central defence, the new head coach started the season with his favourite set-up. He had players at his disposal who managed to quickly adapt to his style. They are eager learners, who, over the course of the season, have thrived under Kashyapa s stewardship.
It was a 4-0 home defeat to Federation Cup champions Bengaluru FC that brought Royal Wahingdoh crashing down to the ground. They had made a strong start to the campaign. Their unorthodox style of play, a three-man backline, flanked by wing-backs on each side, a two-man central midfield, and a three-man attack, had helped them upstage their opponents in the first three games, but the defeat to Bengaluru was a crushing blow to their confidence. Defeats to Mumbai FC and Pune FC a few games later seemed to have brought their top-flight honeymoon to an end, and for a moment, it seemed like they would be drawn into the relegation battle. Facing a fixture-congestion at the end of March, and with long distances of travelling in between some of the games, Wahingdoha s season needed a revival. This is where the team stepped up to show its true mettle. They pulled off a gritty 1-0 win over East Bengal, and followed it up with a 2-0 victory over Pune FC.
Heading to Bangalore, the team then gave defending champions Bengaluru FC a run for their money, fighting off fatigue to play out a thrilling 3-3 draw against the eventual runners-up. During these games, Jackichand Singh truly came to the fore, as he dished out some of his best performances of the season. He was well backed-up by the likes of Godwin, Theobald and Seityasen, all of whom played their parts.The cluba s most famous win, however, came a couple of weeks later against Mohun Bagan, as they came back from 2-1 down with five minutes left to play, to pick up all three points from the game. The loss almost derailed Mohun Bagana s title challenge, as they endured a patchy run of form until the end of the season. The Royals went on to win their last home game by a scoreline of 4-2 against former champions Salgaocar, as Jackichand assisted all three goals in Seityasena s hattrick.
This season has seen the emergence of some previously unknown commodities in the I-League, and Santosh Kashyap deserves credit for putting his trust on players whom most top-flight clubs wouldna t have given a chance. Lalchhawnkima, Reagan Singh, Sena Ralte, Nikhil Bernard, among others, have enjoyed a very good season in the I-League, and along with the likes of Loveday, Lallawmzuala, Naoba, Bekay, Kim Song Yong, etc., have complemented the Jackis and Seityas really well. Kashyap, whose approach to football is often seen as being dogmatic by many in the game, has come across as more of a pragmatist this term. During the last four and a half months, he has never hesitated making changes to his side or its style of play whenever necessary. With the team having had to undertake extensive travelling during the season, something it hasna t had to do before, his side has often had to adjust its approach against more fancied opponents, be it being more conservative away from home, or employing a slightly more physical approach.
Without relying on a reactive brand of football, Kashyap has, however, in almost all games, made sure that his team has had a go at the opponent. Even in the 4-0 home loss against Bengaluru, the visitors had their backs against the wall for large parts of the game.Their direct, fast-paced game has seen them play quite a few teams off the park this season. With their third-placed finish, they have smashed the established order in the I-League. Given the resources they have at their disposal, a top 3 finish in their debut season is a vindication of the efforts put in by the people who run the club. If their first I-League season is any indication, the Royals seem to be here for the long haul.
Written By THT Guest Author Bhargab Sarmah. Follow the Author on Twitter