Around this time last year, NEROCA was busy scripting history in the second division as they finished the season unbeaten to qualify for the I-League, the top-tier league in India. They were trained by Gift Raikhan, who had honed his skills in the I-League as the assistant to Mike Snoei and had learned the tricks to succeed at the top level. Even after a scintillating run in the second division, critics were not convinced that the Manipuri team which operates on a shoe-string budget will be able to replicate their performance against the big boys of Indian football.
The gaffer in an interview to Goal before the start of I-League had said, "My target is to finish third. We are a new team and a third place finish will be more than enough." At the end of the league campaign, NEROCA finished as runners-up with 32 points, bettering the likes of traditional giants Mohun Bagan and East Bengal.
We got in touch with Raikhan once again, to get his reactions after an exemplary season where NEROCA were involved in the title race till the very end.
"My target was to finish third as we were a new team. The team showed fantastic energy and we came runners-up. We were very close to being champions. The players were motivated to do well as they had a point to prove to themselves. I am also a young coach. I also wanted to prove myself. So with a definite plan and hard work, we achieved success," said the second division I-league winning coach from Manipur.
The 36-year old coach has built the team from scratch and knows each of the players like the back of his hand. He boasts of an excellent relationship with his squad. But when questioned about his future with NEROCA, the Manipuri was reluctant to commit.
"Let me finish the Super Cup. This question I cannot answer now. It is too early to say. Anything can happen. NEROCA is my first priority. But I have to discuss with the management. I have told them that let us finish the Super Cup and then we will see. I am looking to become a Pro Coaching License holder. I am open to coaching any I-League team as I want to perform well at the highest level," informed Raikhan.
Sources close to Goal have indicated that a former Indian international, who is heavily tipped to take over the reins from Raikhan, has been getting involved with the team. Although Raikhan was quick to quash away any such claims, he accepted that he is advised by former players when the team is in trouble.
"I am the decision maker of the team. They have given me the freedom. Senior ex-India international players are there, who advise me from time to time when the team is in trouble. In the management also there are people who played football 30-40 years back, with whom I have discussions. I think this is normal. But I take the final decisions," stressed the A-License holder.
The former youth development coach of Pune FC has spent a considerable period of time with youngsters and thinks that it will be best for talents like Ronald Singh and Pritam Singh to continue their development at NEROCA.
"Yes, the foreigners and also the local players are getting big money offers from other clubs. Now the player has to understand the value of NEROCA. The players cannot demand anything under the sun and force the management to accept it. The management must also ask them to stay and agree to their demands to some extent and the players should also reciprocate to that.
"Young players like Ronald and Pritam must stay with NEROCA. But here they know the system. If they are exposed to a new programme it might be difficult for them to adapt. So it is best for them to stick to NEROCA," opined Raikhan.
In spite of an impressive run in the I-League, the coach does not consider his team as favourites to win the Super Cup but that will not deter them from gunning for the silverware.
"Our team is not among the favourites to win the Super Cup. But nobody believed that we can be runners-up in the I-League. Anything can happen in football. We are preparing ourselves day and night. Yes, Kerala Blasters is a good team but NEROCA will go for the win," insisted the former left back who plied his trade in a string of clubs in the erstwhile National Football League. .
Although Manipur has been the hotbed of young football talents, their recent Santosh trophy debacle has not gone down well with the man hailing from Mapao Zingtun in Manipur.
"The Manipuri fans are crying over Santosh Trophy result. I think they should prepare better to face teams like Kerala, Bengal and Maharashtra. They should analyse the best players of the opponents and prepare accordingly," expressed Raikhan.