Bhogtoram Mawroh is back with his first piece of 2020 and he considers the pluses and minuses of the Meghalaya team that has reached the semifinals of the Junior National Football Championship for the Dr BC Roy Trophy, which is currently underway in Shillong…

There has never been a dearth of passion for the beautiful game in Meghalaya. But despite all the natural talent the players from the state possessed, national trophies were few and far between.

Periods of triumph were followed by a dry spells, creating a great deal of frustration for those who wanted to see Meghalaya play a big role in the development of the game in the country. The last few years have seen the state win some important national trophies and it seemed like this time the period of success at the national level will last longer. The New Year brought further encouragement with three teams from Shillong reaching the final of the Reliance Foundation Youth Sports football finals. While H Elias won the junior category, the other two teams from Shillong College failed at the final hurdle, losing to teams from Kerala and Bengal.

The two losses were a little hard to swallow considering that it was poor refereeing decisions that cost both Shillong teams their respective finals: a goal wrongly disallowed against Kerala and an incorrect penalty decision in the dying seconds of the game against Bengal. I began to wonder if this signalled the end of the fabulous run for the state teams. The fear became more ominous when the Meghalaya senior team crashed out of the Dr T Ao Trophy, which included a heavy loss to Mizoram. Winning and losing is part of the game but a 6-0 loss is highly worrisome. Mizoram are a strong team but unlike a few years ago there are many other contenders for the title of the best footballing state in the country.

Bengal and Goa are the usual suspects but you now also have Punjab, Maharashtra, Karnataka and especially Kerala, who are making big strides in football. In fact Kerala’s upsurge started way before the Indian Super League began when players like Denson Devdas were playing for Mohan Bagan. This increased competition among different states is good news for Indian football but also throws a big challenge to Meghalaya. Losses like the one they had against Mizoram show that, at the senior level, there is still a long way to go. At the junior level, though, there is more hope and the Dr BC Roy Trophy organised in Shillong gives a good opportunity to continue the good run at that level.

When Meghalaya drew the first match against Haryana on the opening day it began to look a little complicated. A comprehensive win against Odisha and a hard fought victory against Sports Authority of India ensured that the team finished above Haryana on goal difference. With the game against SAI being the only one I could watch I feel that the team will have to improve a lot more if they are to win the semifinal against Mizoram, who will be strong opponents. The thing which will go in Meghalaya’s favour is the fact that this current team have already won three trophies in the last few months. This Meghalaya team is composed of many of the same set of players who won the U-18 Shillong Premier League for Shillong Lajong last year and the U-17 Subroto Cup and the junior category of the Reliance trophy. Winning is a habit and having won these trophies together, a fourth is a real possibility. However, to do that they will have to play a lot better than what was on display yesterday.

Meghalaya played with a 4-3-2-1 formation with Gladdy Kharbuli, the captain, playing in front of the back four and Glennys Lynrah as the solo striker upfront. Operating just behind Glennys was the highly impressive Sangti Janai Shianglong. For me Oresterwell Langshiang and Sangti are two of the most promising attacking midfielders in the state. Although I would rate Oresterwell a little higher than Sangti, the latter has got more exposure by dint of playing at the national levels. So if a move to a bigger team comes around Sangti has the edge over Oresterwell. Sangti’s importance to this team is unquestionable and his performances determine to a great extent how the team plays.

As usual Sangti looked really lively in the first half, carrying the ball very well and looking to thread key passes into the path of his strikers. Not all the passes, though, were up to the mark. Sangti’s case wasn’t helped by the fact that his midfield partners, Gladdy and Hamedamanbha Wahlang, were themselves not having a very good first half. The players from SAI were doing a good job in closing down their Meghalaya counterparts. Meghalaya’s difficulty was compounded by the fact that SAI were able to neutralise two of their main goal threats, Glennys and Wadajied Kynsai Ryngkhlem in different manners. Glennys was forced to go wider searching for space to turn while Wadajied had to undergo a long treatment on the sidelines while his team were playing with 10 men for a considerable period of time.

This disturbed the gameplan, which consisted of Wadajied combining with Saveme Tariang on the left flank to create overloads through that part of the pitch. The right side was not as effective with Jefferson Kharbuli not looking really confident. Realising that his team were not having the impact he desired, the coach, Bobby Lyngdoh Nongbet, brought on Tremiki Lamurong in place of Glennys and Teibokmi Lyngdoh in place of Jefferson. Both were straight swaps.

I was a little sceptical of replacing Glennys with Tremiki since it meant there was no target man upfront. Tremiki is a quick and skilful player but holding up the ball and bringing others into play is not his game. Even with the changes the team still looked a little tentative in the first half.

The second half was a different affair altogether. From the beginning there was a genuine attempt to bring Wadajied a lot more into the game. The midfield starting looking a little more assured on the ball and Sangti was beginning to have more influence into the game. Tremiki, who was having a mixed game with some poor ball control and misplaced passes, displayed some very neat footwork to get past his markers and combine with Sangti which ultimately led to Gladdy lobbing a ball over the goalkeeper for Wadajied to head it home.

After that it was Meghalaya all the way with Sangti mesmerising everybody with his footwork. A proper Number 10, Sangti always seems to have an extra second to hold the ball and decide when to pass. This ability to slow the game down to look for options is the hallmark of all good Number 10. In this Sangti reminds me very much of Mesut Ozil, who, when playing very well, is not hassled by the frenzy around him. Of course there is a still a long way to go before he can attain the lofty heights of the German but the talent is there.

The other player who was very impressive for Meghalaya was the goal scorer Wadajied. Within 10 minutes of scoring the first goal for his team Wadajied scored the second after getting on the end of a gorgeous through ball. He could have had a third and his second hat-trick in two games but was denied by some good goalkeeping from SAI’s custodian Subham Tiwari.

Wadajied looks like a really good player and one of the highlights of the game was when he brought down a very high ball and immediately started a counterattack. When he got injured in the first half, the physio was asking him to take some time before he went back in. Seeing his team playing a man short he ignored the advice and tried to enter the game.

Football is a contact game and playing through pain is inevitable. I remember a football programme where Bhaichung Bhutia was doing punditry with a player who played in Europe (I don’t remember who but I think he was a French international). It was the finals and Bhaichung was making the point that if the player is injured he should be honest about it so as not to hurt his team’s chances. The European player looked at him and replied that “you are never 100% when you go out to play”. What he meant was that anytime a player enters the pitch they are carrying small niggles but the desire to be part of the game outweighs any pain they may experience. At the same time, Tyrone Mings decision to continue in spite of being injured led to his side, Aston Villa concede a goal against Leicester in this season’s English Premier League. So Bhaichung also had a point. Personally for me, the players and the coach should listen to the medical staff. Just as the coach has the last word on tactics the medical staff should decide about the players’ health. No matter how beautiful the game is, football is still a game.

While Wadajied was creating havoc from the left side of the pitch the right side was well marshalled by Benjamin Diengdoh, who also had a very good game. He combined well with his full back, Teibokmi both in defence and attack. And although he did have some attacking forays his main task to make sure that the team did not get overrun from the right side. In that he did his job very well. While there are flashy players who steal all the limelight, there are also those like Benjamin who make sure that the team stays solid. And talking of solidity, Meghalaya’s defence led by Henryford Nongneng held firm for the entire game, giving very few chances to SAI players to attack. Henryford, especially, won all the aerial duels and looked imposing. There was only one instance in the first half when a lapse led to the SAI attacker releasing a shot which rebounded off the crossbar. Other than that the defence was rock solid.

Now the team will play the semifinal against a Mizoram team which has been quite prolific in the group stages. With a little bit of bias, I am of the opinion that it will be Meghalaya who will start as favourites. Home advantage and a team which has a habit of winning trophies gives them an edge. If they overcome Mizoram and win the final as well, it will be hat-trick of national trophies for Gladdy as a captain, which will be a very big achievement. They will do well to take inspiration from the past but also remember that it is the present which matters.

A couple of seasons ago Manchester City (to my indignation) was being hailed as the best team the Premier League had ever seen. Fast forward now and it is Liverpool who are being hailed as being the best ever (I am so happy). There is no doubt that Liverpool will finally end their 30-year drought this season, whether they remain invincible is another matter. Even if they do, if they don’t follow up with another trophy in the next season it will be somebody else who will be talked about.

If this particular Meghalaya team has to go on and create history for the state and themselves they have to keep winning. There is no way out of it. If Meghalaya has to be counted as a footballing powerhouse they cannot win trophies for only a couple of years. They have to dominate for at least a decade. This success will then spill over to the senior team and the women’s team (I regret missing the U-17 team’s matches against Bhutan).

Maybe some in the future will then make the journey to Europe and elsewhere, but before Europe I think players will have to shine in the Asian leagues first, like in the Middle East or East Asia. And when India becomes a top footballing nation it will be Meghalaya who will supply the players. For all that to happen, it has to start here. I would like to wish Gladdy and company all the best for the semifinal, and hope they bring laurels to the state and themselves. Cheers!

(File photo)

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