Mumbai City-slayer already, NorthEast appear to have makings of a strong side this season
NorthEast United FC may have finished in the semi-final spots just once in the Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) but the region’s contribution when it comes to unearthing young talents has been unparalleled. All Hero ISL teams have at least one player from the region in their squad and plenty of these players got their big break in India’s premier football division with NorthEast.
Whether it’s galloping fullbacks like Ricky Lallawmawma and Hero ISL 2017-18’s Emerging Player of the Season Lalruatthara or flamboyant wingers like Jackichand Singh, the northeastern part of India seems to have it all. Semboi Haokip – the only other Indian hat-trick scorer apart from Sunil Chhetri in Hero ISL history – also hails from the region.
Hero ISL winners Thoi Singh and Jerry Lalrinzuala too come from the northeastern region of India and were at the heart of Chennaiyin FC’s past Hero ISL successes. The league’s second-highest Indian goal-scorer Jeje Lalpekhlua (23 goals) is another former Hero ISL champion that comes from the region, just like last season’s leading Indian goal-scorer from midfield Lallianzuala Chhangte.
The likes of Redeem Tlang, Seiminlen Doungel, Jerry Mawihmingthanga, Halicharan Narzary and Reagan Singh have all represented the Highlanders in the past before going on to play for other clubs in the Hero ISL. And it’s not just at club level where players from the region have established themselves as integral members of the squad.
The likes of Udanta Singh, Vinit Rai and Amarjit Singh are considered mainstays for the future in the Indian national team. With more players from the region now enjoying breakout seasons with the help of the Hero ISL in each passing year, it’s safe to say that the northeast has become the conveyor belt for up-and-coming talents to emerge from.
The ongoing season, in fact, has more players from the region than any other part of India. Bengaluru FC’s Suresh Wangjam, who was their 2019-20 Fans’ Player of the Season, is one more example of why the northeast is the sanctuary for gifted youngsters.
Wangjam, Amarjit, Kerala Blasters FC duo Jeakson Singh & Nongdamba Naorem and ATK Mohun Bagan goalkeeper Dheeraj Singh all of them have been part of India’s history making U-17 FIFA World Cup team in 2017.
Dheeraj impressed many onlookers with his performances in goal and Jeakson will always be known for scoring India's first ever goal in a FIFA tournament, while the other talents from the FIFA U-17 team have gone on to become highly rated prospects for teams, if they aren’t a part of the playing XI already. While most of the players from the U-17 teams are still fighting for a spot in the starting XI for their respective teams, NorthEast midfielders Ninthoinganba Meetei and Lalengmawia already seem integral members of the Highlanders squad. Both showcased their talent in the Highlanders’ win over Mumbai City FC in both teams’ Hero ISL 2020-21 opener and will again be the players to watch out for against Kerala Blasters FC on Thursday.
NorthEast’s faith in local youngsters has been the hallmark of the club since the inception of the league and that hasn’t changed with the passage of time despite all the ups and downs. It’s perhaps this unflinching faith in giving local youth players chances to prove themselves year after year that separates the Highlanders from many other clubs.
The club know that if not with them, the players will go on to achieve success and fulfill their potential with other teams. While this could understandably be disheartening for them, it speaks volumes for NorthEast that they are willing to sacrifice the opportunity to perhaps consistently challenge for the top-four spots in order to stick to the philosophy of the club.
However, things look a little different this time with the imported signings of Dylan Fox, Benjamin Lambot, Idrissa Sylla, Luis Machado, Kwesi Appiah and Khassa Camara, Hero of the Match against Mumbai City. Seasoned Indian defenders Ashutosh Mehta and Gurjinder Kumar too have been roped in, and they were brilliant against Sergio Lobera’s side the other day.
With their huge experience and quality to aid the exuberance of local youth, the 2020-21 campaign could be NorthEast’s most fruitful season yet. The way they played against a mighty Mumbai City FC side, blending caution and aggression, there are clear signals that the winds of change are at last blowing through the Highlanders. From all appearances, they look the team to watch out for this season.