Bhogtoram Mawroh was all for finally getting to watch some local competitive football after ages and dragged himself over to Laitkor for yesterday’s Assam Rifles Invitational Cup final. He enjoyed himself, despite having to stand throughout in the dust, and he was quite impressed with Eric Nongkhlaw’s performance in goal. Here is his first Bhogto’s Corner column of 2021…
One of the biggest disappointments last year was the cancellation of the Shillong Premier League season, which I thought was a premature decision. The Shillong Sports Association should have waited a little longer before coming to such a hasty decision. That meant that there was no football for the whole year and a bleak year got even gloomier. So, when I came to know through TSR that the final of the Assam Rifles Invitational Cup was happening, there was no way I was going to miss it. After a round of persuasion and convincing, the trip to Laitkor was finalised.
On the day of the final, we (me and my friends) booked a cab and reached the venue just before the game was about to begin. It was a delight finding so many people who had come to watch the game. A football match without spectators is a dull affair. People of all ages and genders had come to watch an intriguing encounter. And, indeed, it was an intriguing encounter.
This was the final, so fitness should not have been an issue. Still, the players looked like they lack a bit of sharpness, with ball control especially looking a little dodgy. The combination play was lackadaisical and both teams were guilty of some wayward passing. There were two goals scored in the first half by Assam Rifles, with the first coming off a mistake from Eric Nongkhlaw, Lawmali’s goalkeeper. Instead of pushing the ball away to the side of the goal he punched it right back into play where the opposition players had gathered. This was not a good start for the goalkeeper and he looked a little nervous to begin with, especially under high balls. However, he improved markedly as the game went on and was colossal for his team in the second half.
The second 45 minutes was better in terms of pace, with Lawmali dominating possession and getting their groove, especially when it came to passing. Assam Rifles decided to soak up the pressure and hit Lawmali on the counter. It was a strategy that would have paid dividends if it wasn’t for Eric’s superhuman efforts. There were waves and waves of counterattacks from Assam Rifles, which were thwarted by Eric’s brilliant reflexes. There was one particular stop that was absolutely world-class – an Assam Rifle’s player took a shot from outside a box which hit one of their own players. The ball deviated sharply and was on the way to the left hand corner. Suddenly, one saw Eric’s body mid-air with his hand punching the ball away from the goal. That was the best moment of the game. In the air, because of his height, Eric will always face a bit of struggle, but as a shot stopper he looks to be very competent. In this way he is a little similar to Frolicson Dkhar, who has good reflexes but seems unconvincing when it comes to commanding his box. Both Eric and Frolicson need to look at someone like Padam Chettri, who I believe is the best goalkeeper in Meghalaya.
The reason I like him is because he takes charge of his box. There was a Santosh Trophy game against Assam when Padam saved a penalty after which he went and thumped his chest against an opposition player to show him who’s boss. I like that aggression. Eric has to imbibe some of that controlled aggression and, if he does, I feel we will have a very good goalkeeper on our hands. For me Eric was the man-of-the-match.
There were some disappointments, though, especially with the decision to play Sheen Sohktung in a deeper role in the later part of the second half after he had scored a goal and assisted another to bring Lawmali back into the game. The first goal came about after a long pass to the left flank where Sheen was positioned. He took the ball expertly and drove into the box without any challenge from the out of position defenders. That was a very well-taken goal. For the second goal, Sheen was the creator when he had started playing more centrally. I don’t know if that was the actual plan (him playing more centrally) but after the goal it seemed that tactics changed to get him more involved in the game. That was perfectly fine except that the position Sheen took was not helping the team.
Sheen has got experience of playing in the I-League and was among the best players in the game. But it was an absolute waste for him to come deep and take the ball from the defence. That job was being done by the other midfielders who had no problem in retaining possession. What the team needed was someone upfront who could threaten the opposition’s goal. The deep position Sheen took was baffling. The only way he could influence the game from that position was if he was Andrea Pirlo, who could create moves from the deep. Wayne Rooney ultimately played in the midfield as he grew older. But Sheen is not a passer like Pirlo or old like Rooney, so his position was baffling. If the coach wanted to get him into the game, he could have played either as the striker or just behind the striker. In any case, Lawmali dominated possession in the second half, so he was always going to get a lot of touches. This tactical change for me was one reason why Lawmali lost the game.
Apart from Sheen, it was good to see players who had played high-level football, either in the match, on the bench or outside watching the game. Of course, it is a sad feeling that these players were here when they should actually have been playing elsewhere.
FC Goa have three players from Meghalaya but it is in the I-League that Meghalayans are shining. Chesterpaul Lyngdoh and Samuel Lyngdoh Kynshi have been quite good for Real Kashmir while Rupert Nongrum has already scored a couple of goals for Punjab FC. We have two boys in the Indian Arrows setup – Ricky Shabong and Halen Nongtdu. I am not in favour of a team who cannot be relegated (like the Arrows, who are a development side of the All India Football Federation) playing against professional teams whose future depends on their performance. But hopefully the two players can become good professionals in time.
However, there are also those who have fallen by the wayside and some of them were there in yesterday’s game. Of course they are still young and there is still a chance they can revive their careers. Meghalaya needs a team in the I-League and a team which will ensure that local talents get the chances they deserve.
The best example for me is Shaiborlang Kharpan, who joined Kerala Blasters a few seasons ago. Ever since Shaibor joined the Blasters he has been scoring goals for them, whether it be for the reserves in the I-League qualifiers or in the Kerala Premier League. Now he is on his second loan spell with Sudeva and he is still scoring goals. I feel his consistency over the last few seasons will stand him in good stead going forwards (metaphorically and literally).
I would like to congratulate Assam Rifles for winning the trophy. They were deserved winners. Lawmali tried to best but the deserving team won. Hopefully this will be a prelude to the new football season in the state. I overheard that the season will start in June, which is a ridiculous decision. That is the peak of the monsoon and the ground conditions will not be perfect for football. Who makes these decisions? Basically I can’t wait any longer. Hopefully from now till then we will have some pre-season tournaments to enjoy. So here’s wishing for an exciting football season ahead. Cheers!