Shillong, Jan 1: Exactly halfway through their I-League 2018-19 season we’ve seen the consequences of what Shillong Lajong’s decision to go with an all-North East squad has led to.

One win, one draw and eight defeats. Eleven goals scored, 30 conceded. All six matches on the road ending in defeat. Bottom of the table and three points behind development side Indian Arrows. This is a bad season, even if compared to Lajong’s shaky campaigns in years gone by.

Prior to the season SLFC Managing Director Larsing Ming Sawyan told Times of India that the club took the call not to sign any foreign players in order to “produce quality Indian players” and “boost Indian football” by using the money they could’ve splurged on foreigners in developing local talent.

But to paraphrase a commentator during an Indian Super League match (who was referring to Kerala Blasters’ own horrible performance), “building for the future is good, but it’s important to focus on the here and now and not be embarrassed on the pitch”.

Unfortunately, embarrassing is exactly what this season is turning out to be for Lajong.

Most fans, at least those who make their feelings known online, appear to be thoroughly disappointed. Some are positive about seeing Meghalaya (read Khasi) players given their opportunities at this level (ranging from four in the starting lineup in the first three games to seven in the last two). But, honestly, not all of those in the Lajong squad are really ready to play at this level.

Lalawmpuia Hnamte has been disappointing in midfield, while something has been lacking in defence even though TSR feels that individually players like Aiban Dohling and Kenstar Kharshong have done all right.

Unfortunately we haven’t been able to see much of Hardycliff Nongbri in action, with the midfielder not looking 100% fit. Samuel Lalmuanpuia, meanwhile, seems to have stalled in his development as a footballer; perhaps he’s spent too long at Lajong and needs to find new pastures to grow, though he’s still able to turn in stunning goals, like his free-kick wonder against Chennai City the other day.

The season started well enough for the first North East club to feature in the I-League, with a 2-1 win over 2016-17 champions and regional rivals Aizawl. But Aizawl’s own struggles in following games made that victory for SLFC look a little less impressive. After that it’s just been disappointing. Lajong’s only other point came in a 2-2 draw at home versus defending champions Minerva Punjab, but that result came after the Shillong side were leading by two goals to nil in the first half.

Then came some very painful games to watch. Two out of the last three ended 6-1 against Lajong – versus Real Kashmir and Chennai City. Including the 2-0 defeat at Mohun Bagan that came in between those two fixtures, Lajong have conceded 14 of their 30 goals (that’s nearly half) in only the last three outings.

Is there anything to look forward to?

Well, six of their second leg matches will be played at home, so hopefully that will give the Reds a win or two.

Kitboklang Pale hasn’t really shone through in the three games he’s played so far since joining the club on loan, but it’ll take him time to move from the Shillong Premier League to the I-League and he may just make his mark in the second leg.

One positive for TSR, though, over the course of these 10 matches so far is to have seen how determined the young Lajong players are. Defeat after defeat doesn’t seem to have dampened their spirits. They’re still giving it their all, they’re still enthusiastic enough to photograph their aeroplane boarding passes and put them up on their Instagram stories whenever they’re jetting off around the country.

Still, relegation is staring Lajong in the face. If there is an I-League next season (and who can say about that) the real risk is that there will be no SLFC in it. That would be a terrible shame after nine years in the competition. The club have given Indian football so much and it would be sad to see them bow out with a weak whimper. TSR hopes that that can still be avoided.

(TSR file photo)

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