Shillong, Oct 15: It’ll be their 10th season in the I-League but their first since they were relegated at the end of 2018-19 and Shillong Lajong FC are looking not just to make up the numbers, nor just to survive, but to compete with the best and finish in the top half of the table.

I-League 2023-24 begins on 28th October but Lajong won’t play their first game until 3rd November and won’t be seen at home until six days later.

The club are busy training ahead of the big day when they go on the road to face Mohammedan Sporting in their opener. Speaking to TSR yesterday, Lajong boss Larsing Ming Sawyan confirmed that Bobby Lyngdoh Nongbet will be their head coach. That would make sense given how closely he’s worked with so many of the young Reds since their formative years; the only real question was whether he could swing the role of head coach of an I-League side while being the District Sports Officer of Ri-Bhoi but that issue seems to have been sorted.

The core of the squad this year were with Nongbet when Meghalaya won the U-17 boys’ Subroto Cup in 2019. In fact, Lajong have never had so many local players in its ranks for an I-League season before – as many as two dozen could be on the roster when registration is complete.

“This will be the biggest local contingent,” Sawyan said. “Before, we didn’t have the calibre of players locally. This is the outcome of development over the last 15 years. We are trying our best to give it a good shot. I look forward to the I-League and for Shillong to be a venue for the I-League.”

While Lajong have always drawn most of their strength from the North East as a whole, the rather small numbers of Meghalaya players in their previous I-League squads did garner criticism. That has changed completely this time around.

“We have a bunch of very talented home grown players who are extremely technically gifted. This is the best batch of youngsters we have had,” Sawyan said.

Nevertheless, foreigners could be the difference between a good season or a mediocre one. Lajong have signed four (out of a maximum of six permitted) – Brazilian defender Daniel Gonçalves, Senegalese striker Abdou Karim Samb, Brazilian midfielder Renan Paulino de Souza and Japanese striker Takuto Miki. Unfortunately, the club’s foreign signings have, in the past, been underwhelming, so we’ll have to wait and see how these four perform.

But even without them, SLFC were able to impress in the Second Division League, where their runners-up finish netted them a spot in the I-League. That campaign, in the first half of this year, saw Lajong beat teams that were better prepared, according to Sawyan, like FC Bengaluru United and United SC.

After that, though, things didn’t go all the club’s way. Straight after the Second Division, they attempted to mount a defence of their Meghalaya State League title but ended up losing in a dramatic second leg semifinal to eventual champions Rangdajied United. Then, still all-domestic, they took part in the Durand Cup but lost heavily to two Indian Super League sides before securing a consolation win at the end of their group campaign.

It’s a big ask of the local lads and no one will want to think too much on that 2018-19 season when Lajong, with an all-domestic squad, finished rock bottom of the I-League.

Instead, they’re going to push for a Top 5 finish, which would equal their best result from 2015-16. To do so, Lajong will have to get past some tough competition, with Sawyan picking Mohammedan (who’ve seen rivals Mohun Bagan and East Bengal head over to the ISL), Sreenidhi Deccan, Gokulam Kerala, Delhi FC (who gained promotion with Lajong), Real Kashmir and direct entry side Inter Kashi as being teams to look out for. And then there are three other North East clubs – NEROCA, TRAU and Aizawl FC – as well.

But being in the I-League is not the ultimate goal for the club. With the champions now being bumped up to the ISL, promotion “has resulted in renewed excitement in the I-League” and major investment from clubs.

Asked whether Lajong would’ve been interested in getting back to the I-League if promotion to the ISL wasn’t a possibility, Sawyan paused before answering, “Probably not.” And SLFC weren’t the only ones – without a clear pathway to the top, many clubs just didn’t see the point of expending the time, energy and money.

“The target of going to the ISL is a distant dream but we aspire to give it a good shot this year,” the boss said. After this season, Lajong will “restrategise” and see whether remaining in the I-League is worthwhile or whether the club should go down a different route and, perhaps, set up that top-class residential academy they’ve been talking about for many years.

For now, the immediate target is Mohammedan, whose assistant coach is Alison Kharsyntiew, formerly of Lajong. A good performance on the road would give SLFC a huge boost before they return home to host NEROCA in a North East derby on 9th November. That match (like their other home games) will be at the SSA Stadium at First Ground, the site of Lajong’s triumph that day in May when they beat Bengaluru United to qualify for the I-League once again.

(Photo: Shillong Lajong/Facebook)

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