Kolkata: As the full-time whistle blew at Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata, the NEROCA FC players collapsed on the ground in bitter disappointment. They had finished a close second to Minerva Punjab FC in the I-League title race in their debut campaign after only managing a draw against East Bengal — a side that's considered a heavyweight in the division.
From getting excited at the prospect of facing the big boys, to feeling unfulfilled at not being able to conquer them in their own backyard, expectations at the Manipuri club have undergone a major upgrade in quick time.
But the ninety minutes that preceded their moment of agony went a long way in justifying the meteoric rise in expectations in Imphal. Facing an East Bengal side is never easy. But facing them when they are on a title hunt is a task for anyone in the league.
NEROCA learnt it very quickly on Thursday as the Red and Golds pinned them inside their own box from the start. Pushing the full-backs up field, Khalid Jamil's men were trying to make the most of the big pitch at the Salt Lake Stadium. The idea was to stretch the NEROCA backline to allow their midfield runners to penetrate the spaces between two defenders.
The visitors were compact as they sat deep inside their half. They had prepared for an East Bengal onslaught, but living with it was proving to be problematic. The gameplan was to soak the pressure and then expose the spaces vacated by the home side's full-backs. So whenever NEROCA had possession of the ball there was an eagerness to hit the vacant spots, but the haste in hurting the opponent was only playing into East Bengal's hands.
It was only on a rare occasion when NEROCA were able to execute their ploy well that East Bengal's rearguard snapped. The visitors got the lead against the run of play, but the problems persisted as half-time arrived.
Despite the advantage, NEROCA didn't dwell on it and came out in the second half having addressed the flaws in their game that had forced them to counter wave after wave of East Bengal attacks. Gift Raikhan's men were not only more organised while defending, they showed a lot more composure on the ball.
NEROCA grew as an attacking threat in the game in the second half, but a desperate East Bengal couldn't be denied. Football had found a way to be weird again, as the visitors' improvement wasn't rewarded. Had it been for an ordinary side, the floodgates would have opened and East Bengal would have run away with the game.
But NEROCA didn't seem greatly flustered by the equaliser. They kept their nerve as East Bengal threw the kitchen sink at them and even had a few opportunities to win it. A victory wouldn't have greatly helped as Minerva won their game to lift the title, but it would have been bit more rewarding for the efforts they put in on the day.
"I won't forget the effort that these players have put in on the field today for me and the club. Win or a loss never affects me but I am very pleased with the season we just had," NEROCA coach Gift Raikhan said after the game.
The game encapsulated what had propelled NEROCA to a second-place finish — a great appetite to be successful, organised and disciplined game play and a great focus on execution of the boss' gameplan. These qualities helped NEROCA become the best defence in the league season conceding just 13 goals.
NEROCA were founded with an objective of getting youngsters from Manipur involved in extra-curricular activities. With football talent in abundance in the state, NEROCA have an adequate supply of raw materials to keep their talent-producing factory going.
"There are many players from Manipur who can play in the I-League. There are many players who can even play at big clubs like Mohun Bagan and East Bengal," Raikhan revealed after the game.
"So all we have to do is to scout well and plan well to form a good team. But having put in great efforts in doing so, I am happy that I have made a team that is able to draw with a big team like East Bengal," he added.
Finishing above the Kolkata clubs would give NEROCA and its players much pride, but Raikhan isn't one to rest on their laurels.
"For me, even if East Bengal and Mohun Bagan don't have the trophy, they are champions. They have been consistently finishing in the top 3-4 clubs for so many years. The contribution they have made to Indian football is simply magnificent, they will always remain special clubs," the NEROCA gaffer said.
Emulating the success of these giants will take time, but NEROCA appear to have set foot on the right path. "I want to be a champion. Everyone at the club has big ambitions. So for that, along with the management, we need to build a good team," Raikhan suggested.
"There are a few areas in my team I need to improve. I have taken a note of it from the experience of this season. I need to make the team perfect in certain areas for fighting to be champions the next season," added the coach.
Despite the small matter of the Indian Super Cup still to go in the season, Raikhan and NEROCA are already planning for the future. Just like the way Shillong Lajong FC and Aizawl FC inspired clubs from the northeast to make it big, NEROCA want to be the latest one to set an example.
Unlike Aizawl, they may have missed out on a dream end to their season, but with a passionate and expectant crowd ready to push its young yet talented footballers to their limits every time they get onto the field, NEROCA's fairytale may just be about to begin.
Updated Date: Mar 09, 2018 12:46 PM