It was a roller coaster ride – sometimes the Highlanders with a torn heart held on in sheer terror and agony; at other times, we raised our hands in ecstasy and joy! The season had every emotion a mortal is capable of feeling – the lowest of lows and the highest of highs. Under the extraordinary circumstances the season kicked-off, without the banners and drums of the Highlander Brigade from the stands in Goa. From sacking a coach to having the highest ever finish in the ISL, today, we will look back at the season where the Highlanders sprung up from the rock bottom and flew high as the phoenix from the ashes.
Gerard Nus – the reign of confused hope
A well-drilled team was fielded by the Spaniard in the first match of the League, as the under-dogs NEUFC went on to beat the massive heavy-weights and eventual Champions Mumbai City FC. The performance caught the eyes of many, pundits were shocked, and fans went berserk expecting something grand! But as minutes on the field rolled, the style of play did not improve and the long ball offences became predictable for the opposition to tackle with ease. Although the team structure remained commendable, it was not enough.
And under fishy circumstances, Jamil (the assistant coach) was sent back to Guwahati. Nus and his rapid squad rotation also did not allow the ‘best 11’ to gel well. In Gerard’s defence, he did not get a full pre-season and did not have a lethal striker at his disposal to convert the chances. After a run of 7 games without a win, Gerard’s “I am f*cking proud of this team!” was just an understatement and he was sacked.
Khalid Jamil – written in the stars
Then Khalid Jamil returned as the interim head coach and did the impossible, thought the unthinkable, revealed the shrouded to lead the team from the front with his astute tactics. He patronized a more free-flowing brand of football with wing-backs and a solid mid-field shielding the defence. He allowed the players to flourish in the role they were best suited for and had a fixed starting eleven.
Long-balls were substituted by short-passes and build-up plays. The Highlanders under him achieved their longest unbeaten streak in the history of the team and scored the highest number of goals. In his dish, Jamil mixed the ingredients of youth and experience and added some extra flavor with ‘Boot-Jolokia’ Fire! He became the first Indian Coach to reach the play-offs.
Every single one of loves Khalid Jamil! Take a bow – Khalid Bhai.
The Highlanders played as a team and together everyone achieved more! They did not top any individual chart but as a unit exceeded everybody’s expectations. Federico Gallego with his midfield magic created the highest goal-scoring chances in the League. The ‘King of the Highlands’ was arguably the best player for the team in the season.
‘A star had exploded!’ – And Lalengmawia Apuia blasted into the grandest scene. With his composure and skills, he bossed the midfield. Apuia certainly did remind the fans of the Maestro Busquets even though many would frown upon such early comparison. He is the emerging and the best Indian player for the Highlanders and another gem, probably the brightest from the football factory of North-East India.
Deshorn Brown! Ah where to even begin with him. ‘A rich man’s waste is a poor man’s gold.’ Being let off by Bengaluru FC, he had a point to prove. While his arrival raised a few eyebrows with 0 goals in 10 matches prior to his move, his move to NEUFC under the tutelage of Khalid was a game-changer. He was getting game-time and was oozing with confidence whenever he stepped onto the field. Very Precious Suhair, was also commendable on the wings with his ever-so-hardworking demeanor. The man never stops running!
The streets of the Highlands will never forget Machado. The Portuguese with his flair and directness was a constant threat and who can forget his goal against BFC. Khassa Camara was an absolute tank in the middle of the park, with his interceptions and tackles. He was the perfect partner for Apuia who had the freedom to roam around due to the Mauritian Tower of Power. Dylan Fox and Benjamin Lambot were colossal figures in the defence who were probably the best defensive duo North-East has ever had since the inception of ISL. Gurjinder and Ashutosh Mehta contributed were diligent and brave as wingbacks and Provat Lakra probably had his breakthrough season where he showed glimpses of his talent. Also, a big shoutout to Kwessi Appiah and Sylla who contributed during significant moments.
While Gurmeet had a good run of games under Nus, Roy da took over the custodian duties shielding the goal.
Towards the future!
The foundation has been laid for far greater things this season. With a minimal budget, a team to fight for the title was fielded. The only thing the management and the team needs is – STABILITY! A wise decision by the board will be to give Khalid Jamil a contract extension. A clear plan to invest in the transfer market – and then – ‘it’ is coming to the Highlands!
In the darkest of times
Like a beacon we shine
We Walk Through This Together!