Promoted from assistant coach to head coach at Shillong Lajong FC in 2013, Thangboi Singto guided the club up until the end of the 2016-17 season, which saw the team finish the I-League in their best ever position – fifth place. Now he’s over at Indian Super League side Kerala Blasters FC working as assistant coach and heading their youth development programme. Singto was back in Shillong recently for the Blasters’ last couple of matches in the U-18 Youth League and kindly agreed to a chat with TSR after his team came out as runners-up.
TSR: Coach, you were at Shillong Lajong for numerous years. You left the club just after they recorded their best ever position in the I-League and you did that with a squad of mainly U-22 players. It’s now a year since you headed over to Kerala Blasters. Can you tell us what you were feeling once your Lajong contract ended?
Singto: It was a mixed bag of emotions. On the one hand my mind said it was time to go to a different place to learn and contribute as I had given all that I could to the Lajong family. On the other hand, it was tough as Lajong had become home where me and my family were taken care of by all and my heart was there.
The Lajong staff has always been like a family. I will never forget them and will always remain grateful for their help.
TSR: How has your first year at the Blasters gone? What exactly is your role in the team and what is the vision of Kerala Blasters when it comes to youth development?
Singto: Kerala Blasters FC have welcomed me with open arms. From top to bottom the people have been excellent. My role is to help the first team as assistant coach in all aspects the club want me to contribute. And as Technical Director for youth development I’m trying to develop the young players who will ultimately play for the first team and also represent the country.
The bigger vision is to be self-sustainable and create a process where there is smooth progression from the youth to senior team. And also to develop players into good human beings and not only footballers.
TSR: The ISL has bedded in over the years and has become more established and we’re seeing their B-teams taking part in the Second Division League and the junior sides in the U-18 Youth League. So, how different an experience has it been for you making the switch from I-League to ISL?
Singto: The transition has been good but with new challenges. There was not much of a structured youth system before I joined. The club are now trying to streamline the youth structure as per the AFC/AIFF/ISL criteria, but it’s easier said than done. This year we will have grassroots, U-13, U-15, U-18 and a reserve side, apart from the first team. The objective is to build good players from this pyramid to represent the ISL team and the nation. Efforts are on earnestly thanks to the support of the management and CEO of the club, Varun Tripuraneni.
TSR: This was the first time that Kerala Blasters took part in the U-18 Youth League and you finished as runners-up to your old club Lajong. Losing out on the title must have been disappointing but did you also feel a certain amount of pride in seeing boys that you have previously coached win the championship?
Singto: We were very happy to see our boys reach the final of the U-18 Youth League. Credit to all at the club for their undying support. The players need to be appreciated. Lajong were a better team but our boys gave their best and put up a good fight. Congratulations to Lajong, yes, but we were proud of our boys.
TSR: Coming now to Shaiborlang Kharpan, he’s been at Lajong for a number of years. He made his I-League debut in 2013-14 but has never been a consistent member of the team. So, what was the thinking behind Kerala Blasters taking him on loan from Lajong? Does he have the potential to make it big in a senior team in I-League or ISL?
Singto: Shaibor always had the potential. Injuries were a bane for him. For our reserves, we needed a striker and Shaibor fitted well in all aspects, so we called him. He scored seven goals in the Second Division League and nine goals in the Kerala Premier League.
If he keeps on working on his goal-scoring skills and if he gets a chance, he will do well in higher leagues also.
TSR: Some personal questions now: you and your family were very well settled in Shillong for years. How was it like moving to the opposite end of the country and settling in Kochi? How’s the family adapted to it?
Singto: It’s not easy moving to a new place, but, surprisingly, my family settled quickly. My thanks go to Varun, Sanjith and Anthony, who have been so helpful. And the people of Kerala welcomed me so warmly that it was a smooth change.
TSR: You were also well known during your time at Lajong for being able to converse to some degree with pretty much every player in his native language. So, how’s your Malayalam coming along?
Singto: I have picked up quite a bit of Malayalam but the Kerala boys have improved on their understanding of English as well, so it’s development on both sides, I would say.
I personally believe that if you can converse with the players in their mother tongue, they will learn on and off the field quicker and better. I will try to keep improving my Malayalam – a polyglot is good for society.
TSR: And this is the most important question of them all – when in Shillong you often made it known that you had a fondness for pork dishes. How’s the food treating you down in Kerala?
Singto: With due respect to the cuisines of Kerala, the most I miss about Shillong and the North East is the food. Personally, there is no food that really satisfies my tastebuds other than our tribal food.
TSR: Finally, coaches are often loved and loathed in equal measure. I don’t know if you paid much attention to comments online, but there were plenty of frustrated Lajong fans voicing their discontent in the last few years that you were at the club – mainly on the team not doing well and not having enough local players in it. How did you deal with such criticism? This past season there was little to no increase in the number of local players in the Lajong I-League team and Alison Kharsyntiew was criticised for the team’s poor performances. What advice would you give him or any other coach in handling negative comments?
Singto: Well, while at Lajong we – Biru (Birendra Thapa), Gumpe (Rime), Ali (Alison Kharsyntiew), Soumya (Bhattacharya), Wiren (Wirendar Iawram) – always tried to give and do our best for the club.
It was not easy to ignore the brickbats and the not-so-comforting remarks, but when you know and your team knows that you have given your best, there was nothing to worry about or get disappointed by comments made by people who did not know the truth. But we also need fans to be vocal and that’s what many did. But that (the negative comments) is part of the game. So, no worries.
As for Ali or any other coach, I would say it’s easier to accept and deal with the criticism with a smile and keep going on doing the good work. For that you cannot do anything alone. You need a dedicated and supportive team, which I had during my tenure at Lajong.