Naoba Thangjam Singh should be a worried man. Now that his side, NEROCA, have charted an entry into the first division of the I-League, many, if not all, of their players have become marked men. Bigger, more lucrative clubs, with fatter wallets will be looking to enlist his players into their ranks.
But Naoba, the director of NEROCA, or North Eastern Re-Organising Cultural Organisation, is a relaxed man.
“We don’t mind our players leaving for bigger clubs,” he tells Firstpost almost nonchalantly. “The philosophy of our club is producing talent and investing in youth. Most of our players are still U-22 players. There are no lack of players in Manipur. It’s a football factory.”
“We have one player each from the states of Kolkata, Goa and Mizoram besides three foreigners. The rest of the squad is from Manipur,” NEROCA coach Gift Raikhan points out.
In a year where the future of club football has been riddled with doubts, Imphal-based NEROCA have been one of the biggest feel-good stories, apart from Aizawl FC, who scripted a fairytale title win in the I-League this season.
Naoba pointed out that the club was started in 1965 to get youth in the state involved in extra-curricular activities but has since then moved on from being just a locality club.
“We are very serious about developing local talent. Every weekend, from Friday to Sunday, we organise grassroot clinics in Imphal where kids under the age of 10 are given footballing lessons so as to inculcate an interest in the sport,” he adds.
While NEROCA only have two practice grounds and no residential academy, they have signed MoUs with multiple clubs in Manipur’s capital to use their facilities for our various age group teams: U-12, U-14, U-16 and U-18.
Another reason spurring the team’s progress is the one-on-one relationships that the team’s management has cultivated with the players. Many of their star players, be it former India player Arata Izumi, former Mumbai City FC forward Mumbai City FC Sushil Singh, were signed just before the last season.
“Many of these players didn’t even think twice when we approached them to play for us. There was the lure of playing for a Manipur club to help them qualify for the I-League, but what we try and do is cultivate personal relationships. Former India player Renedy Singh, who hails from Manipur, also convinced some players to play for us.”
Arata, on his part, says that he had absolutely no apprehensions while joining the club despite them playing in the Second Division League.
The second division can really test a player’s mettle with matches being played at extreme temperatures at times and at grounds that are hardly ideal. The I-League, by contrast, has comfortable evening timings with matches being played under floodlights and on the best pitches the country can offer.
“Having played in the I-League, the Indian Super League and for the national team, the club represented a great chance to experience another level of Indian football for me. Besides the intention of the club and their future plans were really convincing,” he says.
He calls his experience ‘unbelievable’ with the fans being a major role in that.
“Can you imagine 10,000 people coming to watch a football match in the second division? That’s what happens with this club. Unbelievable.”
Motivation from Aizawl FC
Raikhan points out that the club derives motivation from the unprecedented success of other northeast clubs.
“Shillong Lajong and Aizawl FC started this mission before us. Manipur has been the sleeping giant of Indian football for far too long now.”
He adds that the team didn’t have enough exposure to conditions outside the state last time around, when the team finished third in the Second Division League. But this time, the experienced players have led from the front to get the best out of the talent that they always had in their ranks.
Their unprecedented rise aside, the club knows that the upcoming season is a whole new ballgame altogether. Perhaps that’s why the club is making plans to increase their annual expenditure on the team from the Rs 1.5 crore it spent last season.
They have after all set themselves the target of finishing in the top three next season.
Raikhan, however, spells out the question that is on everyone’s mind: “How far can we go?”
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Updated Date: May 31, 2017 10:55:13 IST