After a poor first season, NorthEast United had finished fifth in both 2015 and 2016. In 2015, they drew on local talent in their catchment area, the hotbed of Indian talent in recent years. They had players on loan from teams like Shillong Lajong and Royal Wahingdoh, with some moves being made permanent at the end of the season. More astute loan signings from Mohun Bagan and DSK Shivajians followed in 2016, though they were dependent on the performances of Emiliano Alfaro and Nicolas Velez to guarantee their mid table finish.
The player draft which was held before the 2017-18 season commenced produced a welcome development for Indian football. There was a 103% spike in the salaries of domestic players over the inaugural season. It was an indicator that the league was growing, and that footballers’ livelihoods were improving for the better.
It also meant that operating costs were increasing and the amount of money spent by franchises on players was an indicator of where the big pockets in the league lay. NorthEast United spent 9.1 crore rupees on salaries last season. Only Delhi Dynamos, at 8.7 crore rupees, spent lesser. The highest spenders, Bengaluru FC, spent 16.1 crore rupees and it is little wonder that they had the strongest squad.
NorthEast United and Delhi Dynamos have youth-centric strategies, but teams like Pune and Goa have shown that a sprinkling of stardust is required to make that strategy work. How well would the Highlanders have done to retain Alfaro last season? Pune made him one of the highest paid players in the league, and he delivered on a first ever appearance in the playoffs for the side. That could have been NorthEast, whose fans wanted that playoff spot after a couple of seasons of near misses. A frugal approach might have worked in previous seasons, but the 2017 draft changed the complexion of the league.
The lack of quality showed, and the team lost 13 games last season, the highest number in the league’s history. They scored in only six matches out of eighteen. Joao De Deus was sacked as manager after 7 matches and Avram Grant took over, to no avail. Attendances at their home games dipped (only 1121 fans turned up for the Blasters match) and they ended a dismal season rooted to the bottom of the table.
The buildup to the new season has not been positive. The club’s supporter group, Highlanders Brigade, wrote an open letter to the management expressing concern about the lack of investment in the squad and the absence of engagement with fans. The squad from last season has been dismantled with only five Indian players being retained, but the lack of incoming quality has been alarming. Bartholomew Ogbeche is an interesting signing up front, but it is fair to say that fan concerns have not been addressed. The squad was supposed to travel to Sweden for their pre-season, but that trip was cancelled. Preparation has been some way behind other teams and there are fears that the club’s academy in Shillong will be shut down.
Eelco Schattorie, the assistant coach from last season, takes over the reins. This is what he had to say about his squad last week. “I like to attack and dominate. But to dominate, you must have quality. You cannot make from a Mini Cooper a Ferrari.”
He may be on to something. Arthur Papas, the former coach of India U-23 and the Pailan Arrows, joins him as his assistant with Grant retained as an advisor. The three of them have a massive job in front of them. They may already be thanking their stars that relegation is not a possibility. Another wooden spoon finish beckons.
Last season’s finish: Tenth
FlyingGoalie Prediction For This Season: Tenth