Santosh Kashyap can pass off as the Mumbai expert on north-east affairs in Indian football. He coached two I-League clubs from Meghalaya, Rangdajied United and Royal Wahingdoh FC and was on the North East United FC coaching staff during ISL 2015, based in Assam and launched to provide playing opportunity for raw talent from the region.
Wahingdoh was his most fruitful stint, third place on I-League Division I debut. NEU team building during ISL gave the ex-India midfielder, a free-kick specialist, an insight into football’s popularity across the seven states, known as the Seven Sisters. Franchise owner John Abraham is open about desire to increase the team’s fan following by assembling the best talent he can afford.
Happily for the NEU owner, the north-east brand of players rolling off the assembly line from Manipur, Meghalaya, Assam, Mizoram are so many that other clubs accommodate them. Foreign coaches in ISl (Marco Materazzi, Zico, David Platt) and I-League (BFC’s Ashley Westwood) have done so. Indian coaches know their worth, so does national coach Stephen Constantine.
Jeje Lalpekhlua, IPL 2015’s Emerging Talent award-winner from Chennaiyin FC, is on the India squad at the ongoing SAFF Cup, teaming up with captain Sunil Chetri. The 24-year-old Mizo scored four goals in ISL last season, six this time in 11 appearances for the champion squad, including three assists. He is a member of I-League champion side, Mohun Bagan.
Meghalaya’s Eugenson Lyngdoh, an elegant attacking midfielder, is currently the toast of India. Named AIFF Player of the Year by the national federation. He is a prized asset at Bengaluru FC in I-League and FC Pune City in ISL. Kashyap got a close look at him at Rangdajied, gave him the captain’s armband after seeing the teenager’s maturity and elegance on the ball.
These ‘pahadis’, as people belonging to the hills in north-east India, come across as performers adjusting to different coaches, different playing philosophy. Kashyap explains: “North-east footballers are honest, hard-working, give off their best in training or matches and makes a coach’s job easy. Tactical sense is low in youngsters, once that is taught, no holding them back.”
Lyngdoh is an exception from the north-east types, did schooling at Bengaluru’s Bishop Cotton HS and came to Pune for engineering studies. “He is sincere and talented. I taught him dead-ball skills after noting that he has a good swing,” said the ex-Mahindra playmaker, named ‘Best I-League coach’ at Football Players Association of India awards 2015.
Bengaluru FC signed him from Rangdajied and under coach Westwood, the Meghalaya player continued advanced football studies. “Lyngdoh joined the most professional club in India and is a different player. His high maturity level assists in quick adjustment to the training at a new team,” said Kashyap, holder of AFC Professional Coaching Diploma since 2014.
FC Pune City coach Platt has a high opinion of Lyngdoh, for whom five ISL clubs bid for before Pune paid Rs 1.05 crore for the midfielder, loaned from Bengaluru FC. The 29-year-old is currently on the SAFF Cup squad under Constantine, who gave Mizo winger C Lallianzuala, 18, an international debut and the winger burst into form with two goals against Nepal.
Chennaiyin FC leaned a lot on Lalpekhlua’s goal-getting instinct in ISL, the understanding between the the Mizo striker and Golden Boot winner Stiven Mendoza around the goalmouth made the chunky Indian and sinewy Colombian the tournament’s hottest pairing. Jeje is rated talented enough by Mendoza for a career in European club football, Platt identified Lyngdoh as exceptional.
“From the time I spent at various places in that part of India, life is hard for families. There is little incentive to stay home and parents, realizing sporting talent in children, give every encouragement to chase a career playing football or whatever they are good at. Football is a craze among youth, getting into a top club anywhere was the way out,” said Kashyap, in a chat at the Cooperage.
Zico, the legendary Brazilian coaching FC Goa, spotted the spark in Thongkhosiem Haokip, bringing on the Manipuri as substitute in the ISL 2015 final against Materazzi’s squad, where two other Manipuris (Thoi Singh and Dhanachandra Singh) played their hearts out for the demanding Italian. Thoi is Lygdoh’s teammate at Bengaluru FC, Dhanachandra won the I-League with Bagan.
Haokip’s stunning goal from a first-touch deflection showcased delicate skills, Thoi and Dhanachandra displayed power and ferocity down the flanks and in defence. Wahingdoh’s other striker, Pune City’s Jackichand Singh from Manipur, netted the fastest ISL goal, volleying in 80 seconds after kick-off with his left foot. He was named I-League Best Player for 2014-2015.
Kashyap tries to explain the reason behind a stunning range of athletic ability in the ‘pahadis’. “Kids don’t have regular transport to reach school from homes, need to do a lot of walking along the slopes. People in these hilly areas are toughened up by the conditions. Football is played everywhere from childhood, physical development is natural.”
Mizoram owns the latest assembly line to produce footballers, in the form of a grassroot development project, winning AIFF’s award for ‘Best Grassroot Development’. Kohima-based Aizawl FC is latest I-League entrant from north-east for 2016 season, thus partially making up for Royal Wahingdoh management’s surprise decision to withdraw from I-League.
Without a I-League club to coach, Kashyap is game for a new challenge following the ISL stint with NEU (six wins from 14 matches) under chief coach Cesar Farias. “Every season teaches me something new, coaching education never stops,” he said, watching the Nicolai Adam-trained U-17 World Cup probables weave passing patterns on the Cooperage turf. India captain-designate is Manipur’s Amarjit Singh Kiyam.