After the final whistle at the SSA Football Ground in Shillong, despite the fist pumps, the jumping high fives and the obvious jubilation, there is no way Shillong Lajong FC’s players could have known they had finally broken through and secured promotion to the I-League. Their game against Bengaluru United had ended in victory, a glancing header by Figo Syndai settling the issue at home. They had huffed, puffed and endured over eight minutes of injury time before finding the opportunity to head towards the stands and salute the crowd. And yet there was no way they knew.
Lajong head coach Bobby Lyngdoh Nongbet, confirms this. “In that moment, we were celebrating the victory, because just that itself gave us a chance,” he says. “But I remember rushing towards the stands to find out the result of the Atalanta United game…”
Atalanta United Ambernath FC, who had been on a scorching run, crashed to a loss against United SC at the Kalyani Stadium in Kalyani, to guarantee Lajong’s promotion to the I-League. It was a sweet homecoming for a state running on strong resurgence fuel. “People don’t remember this but Lajong played the I-League for eight seasons in a row,” Larsing Ming Sawyan, President of the Meghalaya Football Association says. “Which is more than many reputed clubs across the country.”
In a year of momentous triumphs for Meghalaya football — the state also reached the finals of a memorable Santosh Trophy campaign — it was appropriate that Lajong, the pathbreakers for the game in the state, had the last say. It was also appropriate — as much poetic as predicted — that its squad featured many youngsters who had turned out for Meghalaya in the tournament’s final in Riyadh.
Several reasons could be traced behind this success. One of those has been the revamp of the Meghalaya Football League, a state league that is contested by 25 clubs across 21 district associations. Shillong and West Jaintia Hills, who boast a stronger football pedigree get more than one slot in the league. The state association mandates that minimum six U-21 players are included in each club’s squad, and at least two feature in the starting XI.
The entire league is sponsored by the state government, and to encourage participation over 80 per cent of the revenue generated is fed back to the clubs. Financial viability has been key and recognising that, the association encouraged clubs to create gate revenue and find personal sponsorship all of which is their own.
On the pitch, the state league’s large-scale participation has also meant more youngsters are playing football, and therefore creating a larger talent pool of talent. A majority of Lajong’s squad, Nongbet says, were part of the club’s academy and graduated upwards, step by step.
“You can say we are the greenhorns of Indian Football,” he says. “And maybe we are, but over the past few years, if you look at results at the National stage, you will see Meghalaya constantly taking strides forward. It’s not a flash in the pan.”
Wanshan Kharkhang, Treasurer, Meghalaya Football Association says that this has been a systemic approach designed for success. “Our approach has been towards developing youth and grassroots structures throughout the state,” he says. “We analyse and send teams according to what experience players can gain from the competition. For the North East games for example we only sent the U-19 team, to give them experience and blood them for pressure.”
Lajong, one of the torchbearers of North East football, have been at the forefront of youth development themselves, their academy serving as a breeding ground for many who’s who of Indian Football.
In the years that followed, two more clubs emulated Lajong’s journey into the I-League – Royal Wahingdoh and Rangdajied United – breaking different frontiers in their own way at the upper echelons of the game in the country.
“I won’t lie, its hugely motivating that there is promotion from the I-League to the Indian Super League now,” Nongbet says. “Obviously I won’t be unreasonable and say anything outrageous. Our first objective has to be to sustain ourselves in the I-League, cement ourselves there. It is a proud moment for Meghalaya football. Clubs from Mizoram, from Manipur are there in the league. It hurt that we weren’t. But now we are.”