Bhogtoram Mawroh has emerged from his winter hibernation to pen a piece looking forward to what he believes will be a fascinating SPL…

Shillong Premier League 2019 has not yet begun but it is already promising to be a blockbuster tournament.

Many good things are happening in Meghalaya football, which makes this upcoming season a very exciting one. At the national level, Meghalaya qualified for the second round of the Santosh Trophy after beating Mizoram on the latter’s home turf. This is the second time in recent years that the state has qualified for the second round. However, the last time it happened they were in a group that had neither Mizoram nor Manipur, two strong football powerhouses. The Mizoram team they defeated this time around had an experienced coach who in the previous season had guided his team to the semifinals with many of the same players who played in this year’s tournament as well.

At the junior level though, Meghalaya lost to Mizoram on penalties in the final of the U-21 T Ao trophy. Interestingly, this was the case last time as well when Meghalaya met Mizoram in the final in Aizawl. Ebormi Buam’s header gave them victory over Manipur in the semifinal to set up with a date in the final with the hosts. Unluckily they lost on penalties. This is a trend which shows that the state team has to prepare well for tiebreakers as they go deeper into tournaments. Hopefully the wins in Reliance tournaments should be a precursor for major trophies to come.

And then there was the recently concluded Assam Rifles Invitational Football Tournament, which Lawmali (composed of local talent) won by beating Assam Rifles in the final. It was not the win per se but the manner in which Lawmali controlled the game and completely outplayed the opposition which gives great hope for football in the state. All these positive trends hint at improvement of the game in the state, which is going to be reflected at club level as well. In fact it is the good work that is happening at the grassroots and club level that is propelling this improvement. It’s a circular process with different levels feeding each other.

Coming to club football, Ryntih’s wholesale purchase of top players from different clubs for the upcoming tournament has made the title race very interesting. They bought almost the entire backline and midfield from Langsning and got some good players from other teams, viz, Rangdajied United, Nangkiew Irat, Malki, Rising and Shillong Lajong as well.

If things had remained the same I would have tipped Langsning to be the champions for a third season in a row. Now it has become a very open tournament. Ryntih, however, will not find winning the championship very easy. Langsning won the trophy quite comfortably last season, but it was mainly the system they played and the coach they had which was the deciding factor. Ryntih will have to replicate the fast-paced and tactically flexible game Langsning displayed last season to come anywhere near the trophy. I am not really sure if Bah Hering Shangpliang has also moved to Ryntih as well but I hope he doesn’t.

Wahingdoh had a youth programme and they almost won the U-15 I-League when Bobby L Nongbet was in charge of the team. Bobby eventually got his trophy (the U-18 Youth League with Lajong) but Wahingdoh regressed very badly. Rangdajied have been competing in national-level youth tournaments for sometime without great success. But the fact that they have kept it functional is admirable as it points to the long-term vision they have.

Langsning embarked on the same path last season with its youth team participating in the U-18 Elite League and they had some good performances as well. I am afraid that that process will hit a roadblock if Bah Hering is not around anymore. It’s not just about his work with the youth players but it’s more about the ambition of the club taking a hit. I suspect that one of the reasons Langsning’s top players left for greener pastures is the lack of aspiration for the team. In spite of having more experienced players and a well-drilled team the team owners decided not to compete in the Second Division League (the I-League qualifiers) this time around. All those players who have joined Ryntih from Langsning are good enough to play in any of the current I-League teams. But with the club lacking ambition they must have thought it better to move on to more (I think) financially lucrative options.

The all-conquering Langsning team of last season was forged in the fires of the very competitive SPL 2017 and Second Division League 2017-18 seasons. They won the SPL but it was a very hard fought battle throughout the season. They missed qualification to the final round of the Second Division League but they outplayed every other team in their group. The players improved and the system was refined. So when SPL 2018 came around they were a much superior team. And if they had stayed together they would easily won the next two editions as well. In time the curve would start moving downward but by then young players like Donborlang Nongkynrih, Figo Syndai, Ronald Lyngdoh Nonglait, Arnesius Marwein and Frolicson Dkhar would have inherited the mantle. If Bah Hering also leaves my fear is that the fate that befell Lajong will follow Langsning as well.

In fact it will be a great test of Bah Hering’s own abilities as to whether he can produce another title-winning team after the exodus of top senior players. For the good of football in the state teams like Langsning need to have ambition and that means keeping the best they have.

For those who signed for Ryntih, there is one case that stands out as the most curious. Allen Lyngdoh Nongbri’s decision to leave Lajong is a little surprising. I am not really sure he is going to get many opportunities to play for the first team. If Ryntih decide to play a four-man defence, the most probable defenders would be Brolington Warlarpih, Banpynkhrawnam Nongkhlaw, Dibinroy Nongspung and Milancy Khongstia or Restom Khriam. These guys will be the first choice for a five-man defence as well.

Allen generally plays as left back and recently for Lawlmali as a centre back. Unless someone is injured those positions will not be available. Allen only played three times in I-League 2018-19, but he scored a goal and put in some good shifts. It is time for him to kick on from those performances. Sitting on the bench is not going to help his development as a player.

At first glance, the team that Ryntih have assembled seems to lack a No. 9. So it will be interesting to see what players they bring in the future. Or are they going to ask Sheen Sohktung and Andy Mawthoh to play that role? I am not really sure No. 9 is the best position for either of them. The lack of a true striker could be their Achilles heel during the tournament. Still it has to be said it is a formidable-looking team and time will tell if they can win the championship.

As for the other teams, apart from Langsning, Rangdajied and Lajong are going to be very tough competitors for the SPL trophy. During the last SPL season Rangdajied were missing a spark. They were a good team but didn’t really have an X factor in their game which was their weakness. How they are going to rectify this deficiency will determine whether they can compete for the championship. Khlain Pyrkhat Syiemlieh has done quite well leading the state team up till now. If Meghalaya come back with the Santosh Trophy this might just trigger a change in the mentality of the club, which could propel them to their first SPL trophy in many years.

The other contender, Lajong, were relegated from the I-League after almost a decade in the top flight. It was lack of ambition which led to their downfall. The appointment of Jose Carlos Rodriguez Hevia is meant to rectify that and create a lift for the club and maybe in the words of club managing director Larsing Ming Sawyan “help in development of local talent”. Jose’s help would indeed be required to improve young players like Samuel Lyngdoh Kynshi, Kynsailang Khongsit, Phrangki Buam, Kenstar Kharshong and others who gave their all for the team this season but were let down by team selection, tactics and management decisions. Let’s hope this appointment will signal a new beginning for all of them. A good beginning will be winning the SPL.

As for the one player who was sidelined to make way for players lesser than him this season, Hardycliff Nongbri needs to move on from this club. Shaiborlang Kharpan went on a loan move to Kerala Blasters, did very well and is now continuing his good form with Ozone FC as well. I don’t think Lajong will compete for entry into the national top flight till 2024 (the year relegation and promotion can begin in the ISL) and as such he needs to move to another club that might provide him with an opportunity for playing top class football. Lajong is no more that club for him.

All in all, juxtaposed with some interesting developments at the state as well club level it all bodes very well for the forthcoming Shillong Premier League. But most importantly, I would like to wish the Meghalaya senior team all the best for their final round campaign of the Santosh Trophy. All the best and come back as champions. Woo woo!!

(TSR file photo)

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