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2009-10 Federation Cup: When Shillong Lajong Arrived On The Big Stage

Wednesday, 17 February 2016|Bhargab Sarmah
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Playing for the first time in the tournament, Stanley Rosario's boys almost ended up lifting the big trophy, after a dream run in Guwahati

December 30, 2009; a day that very few of the Shillong Lajong faithful would ever forget. It was the club’s first year in the Indian top-flight, and on the penultimate day of the year, the club pulled off a result that made the country stand up and take notice. Playing against the-then reigning I-League champions Churchill Brothers, in a cold night in Guwahati, in a cup semi-final that they were expected to lose heavily, Lajong defied all expectations to knock Churchill out of the tournament.

 

With the lethal Odafa Okolie at the peak of his career, and Churchill Brothers in particularly very good form, the Goan outfit was expected to steamroll past Lajong. The Shillong outfit, already having suffered a few injuries, had managed to sneak past the tough Group D after having scored one more goal than Pune FC, with whom it had been tied on points. Now in the semis, it was the best chance yet for Churchill to lift their first ever Federation Cup.

 

Both sides started the game cautiously. Seikhohao Tuboi, however, gave Shillong Lajong the lead at the half-hour mark after a brilliantly-created move, sparking wild celebrations inside the stadium, with thousands of Lajong fans having filled up the galleries of the Nehru Stadium in Guwahati. Churchill Brothers, stunned by the goal, responded with a spate of attacks, and finally had their reward as one of their players was impeded inside the Lajong box, leading to a penalty being awarded to them.

 

What happened next was nothing short of dramatic. As Odafa Okolie, in marauding form, and in his career’s peak, took his run-up, the tension inside the stadium was quite palpable. For Okolie, missing from the spot was a rarity, while in front of him stood the short figure of Gumpe Rime. On paper, Rime looked like the ultimate underdog.

 

The biggest criticism of the Arunachal-born Gumpe Rime, during his playing days, was that he was too short for a goalkeeper. At 5’7, he definitely did not have an imposing figure for a custodian; but what he lacked in height, he more than made it up with his sheer grit and determination. Indeed, he is rightly hailed as the best custodian of his generation from the northeastern region. Rime was one of the most crucial figures for Lajong in that historic cup campaign; and that particular game against Churchill best defines Gumpe Rime for the player he was.

 

As the lethal Okolie let out his low shot from the spot-kick, Rime instinctively dived in the right direction; and before anyone inside that stadium had made sense of what had happened, Odafa Okolie stood there, completely shell-shocked, while Gumpe Rime let out a joyous fist-pump. He had just saved Odafa’s penalty and had kept the score at 1-0! As it panned out, despite a barrage of attacks from Churchill, they never got past Gumpe Rime, who stood like a rock that evening. Daniel Bidemi and James Gbilee arguably had their best games in a Lajong shirt, but both picked up bookings during the game which ruled them out of the final. Wild celebrations followed that win in Guwahati, as the club became the first ever North Eastern outfit to reach the Federation Cup final, a feat that has not yet been equaled.

 

One has to go back to the 22nd of December for the start of Lajong’s 2009/10 Federation Cup campaign, which began with a game against against Air India in a floodlit Nehru Stadium in Guwahati. The first game set the tone for the rest of the campaign, as a see-saw battle between the two sides saw Lajong play out a 2-2 draw against the airmen. However, it is the club’s second group game, against a strong Dempo side, which is more fondly remembered by the Lajong faithful.

 

The game had been well-poised at 1-1 until the 80th minute. Dempo were down to 10 men after the sending off of Anwar Ali late in the first half, but were still holding their own against a youthful Lajong side. Then, in the 81st minute, came one of the most iconic moments of that tournament.

 

Nepalese recruit Anil Gurung had won the ball near the halfway line. As he raced with the ball down the right flank, his strike partner Seikhohao Tuboi had made a run down the middle, and was pretty much unmarked inside the Dempo box by the time Gurung sent in the cross. The cross, however, seemed like it was going to fall short of Tuboi’s run. The Manipuri forward, who had already raced a few inches ahead, turned, and now with his back to the goal, controlled the ball with his right foot. Then, when it looked like he would need some support to make something out of that chance, he almost immediately unleashed a pitch-perfect overhead kick that rippled the insides of the Dempo net, leaving the Goan side stunned, and sparking celebrations in the stands.

 

That late stunner from Tuboi was the stand-out moment of that tournament, and laid the foundations for Lajong’s prolonged run in the competition. In the next game, left flanker Kyrshan Lyngshing scored as Lajong played out a 1-1 draw with Pune. After Dempo beat Air India 2-0 in the other game, the club’s passage to the semis was cleared, as Lajong topped the group on the basis of more goals scored than Pune FC, with whom they were tied on points, head-to-head and goal difference.

 

The result of the Lajong-Churchill semi-final was the one that particularly stood out from that campaign. It was a display of sheer defiance of the established order. The Goliaths had been slayed by a group of unheralded Davids. That magical night in Guwahati truly signaled the arrival of Lajong on the big stage. A club that had been on the fringes of the domestic football circuit just a year ago, had now become one of the most talked about clubs in the nation.

 

Lajong, however, paid a price for their cup heroics, in the tournament’s final. By the time the full time whistle had been blown in the semi against Churchill, some of the senior players had already been ruled out from the final due to injuries and suspensions. Four days later, when the Reds took the field against mighty East Bengal, it was a slightly depleted side, but there was still a celebratory atmosphere in Guwahati. There was no real expectation from the game itself, but having come this far, the local fans made sure that the team got its full support nonetheless. The tremendous support had a rub-on effect on the team too, as Lajong defied East Bengal’s supposed superiority, and took the game to penalties.

 

Unfortunately for the young Lajong side, a lack of experience at this level cost them dear, as East Bengal held their nerves to win the penalty shootout, with custodian Abhra Mondal pulling off three saves, as the Kolkata giants lifted the coveted title in Guwahati. For Lajong, it was a painful defeat; but by reaching the final, they had set some bigger things in motion.

 

The heroics of Gumpe Rime, Seikhohao Tuboi, Anil Gurung, Niwan’o Gatpoh Daniel Bidemi, Boithang Haokip, James Gbilee, Ailad Kynta, Kyrshan Lyngshing, Samson Ramengmawia, among others, catapulted Lajong to a household name in the northeast. The craze witnessed for the beautiful game in Guwahati was unprecedented, something that hadn’t been seen in the city since the National Games’ football final in early 2007.

 

Little did Lajong know then, but their success in the Federation Cup had a rub-on effect on football in the region. Bhaichung Bhutia would later go on to say that one of the inspirations behind starting United Sikkim FC was Lajong’s impressive start to life in the national circuit. Even in Guwahati, the attendances at the Bordoloi Trophy had a noticeable rise in the next couple of seasons. Lajong had, without been aware of it, helped in the mini-revival of football in the Assamese city.

 

More importantly, the club’s Federation Cup success raised the stakes in local football in Shillong. It is no surprise that two more clubs have followed Lajong into the Indian top flight in the subsequent years. The quality and competitiveness of the game in the local circuit in Shillong today is top notch.

 

For Shillong Lajong Football Club, that cup campaign in Guwahati solidified the club’s existence as a football institution. For a club to have that run in its first ever season in the top flight, Lajong undoubtedly laid the foundations for more success in the subsequent years during the winter of 2009-10 in Guwahati. Very few figures from that campaign have remained at the club; but the most important one today, head coach Thangboi Singto, who was the assistant under Rosario, has stayed on all these years to lead the club to an even higher pedestal, as was witnessed by the 6th place finish in the league last season. For owners Larsing Ming and co., the job now is to carry on the good work off-the-field, and take the club further forward in the coming years.