Second division of I-League is all set to kickoff from 31st of March. The second division was almost forgotten amidst all the confusion regarding enforcement of AFC criteria in domestic football. Adherence to AFC criteria led to exclusion of some sides which were regulars in 2nd division till last season. Institutional sides like SBT or Oil India have been excluded from 2nd division while clubs like New Delhi Heroes have failed to make the cut because of non-compliance to the criteria. Some of the excluded sides had been part of Indian football for decades and they will be missed in this edition.
However, inclusion of a new set of enthusiastic and exciting football clubs from North Eastern India is likely to bring solace to Indian fans. North Eastern India has made massive improvements in last five years – churning out players with remarkable consistency. Another crucial factor which makes NE sides unique is their crowd support. While teams like Air India or ONGC play in front of empty stands, clubs like Denzong Boyz attract sizable crowds for their local league matches.
Twenty One teams have been divided into three groups. Group matches will be played in a round robin format in three locations. Top two teams from each group will qualify to the final qualifying round where they will be joined by Lajong FC and Sporting Clube de Goa – the two clubs relegated from I-League at the end of last season.
Preview: Group – A
Venue – Guwahati, Assam
Teams – NISA (Manipur), United Sikkim (Sikkim), Langsing SC (Meghalaya), Gauhati Town Club (Assam), Southern Samity (West Bengal), Golden Threads (Kerala), Shimla Youngs (Himachal Pradesh)
North Imphal Sporting Association is the most successful football club from Manipur, having won the local league three times since 2006. They participated in second division last season – performing impressively in preliminary group stage. Sadly, they were totally out of depth in final qualifying stage and finished bottom of the table without a win.
United Sikkim is the youngest club in second division but they are already getting most limelight. Simply because it is a club started by Baichung Bhutia – Sikkim’s golden boy. Bhutia’s effort in going back to his roots is indeed commendable, Sikkim has produced many talented players in past and a club like US was necessary. They already have seasoned campaigners like Bhutia, Rennedy Singh and NS Manju in their squad and have roped in Stanley Rosario as the coach. Lot of hopes is riding on Bhutia’s team. Few days’ back United Sikkim was officially launched amidst glittering fan fare. Popular singer Shankar Mahadevan is one of the sponsors behind United Sikkim.
Gauhati Town Club has been one of the eminent football clubs from Assam since its inception. During the glory days of Bordoloi Trophy, Town Club used to be one of the strongest forces of North Eastern football. Last year they finished a disappointing sixth in the seven team preliminary round. Town Club will technically be the home team in Group A and will be bolstered by local support. They are not the strongest team in the group but can cause an upset or two.
Few seasons back Southern Samity came into headlines when they fielded former India goal keeper Hemanta Dora as a striker in 3rd division Kolkata League. Shockingly, Dora finished top scorer in the league. Southern used to practice in Tollygunge Agragami’s turf even few years back, both clubs being neighbors in South Kolkata. Ironically, it is Southern who are playing in 2nd division now instead of more illustrious Tollygunge. They have financial backing from some of the local filmstars and have a decent team with former big team players like Edmilson and Javier. With former Durand Cup winner Churchill Brothers’ coach Carlos Perriera at the helm of things, SS is one of the favourites to qualify from this group. They will certainly be buoyed by their performance in IFA Shield where they became the first Indian team to reach semi-final on debut since 1975.
Golden Threads club from Kerala lifted the Cochin Premier League title last season – an achievement which allowed them an entry in 2nd division. However, their performance in 2nd division prelims was shambolic as they won only one game. Their recent performance has been encouraging though; three weeks ago they thumped Regional Sports Centre 5-1 in local league as Sanjay Vennara scored a hattrick. Clubs in Kerala have struggled to perform consistently in national level – a trend Golden Threads would love to avoid.
In 1973 Shimla Youngs became the first club from Delhi to reach semi-final of Durand Cup, defeating Mohammedan and JCT on the way. The club also won Delhi State Championship numerous times between 1950 and 1976. Staying true to their name, they have focused more on youth level over the years. They have developed youth teams in numerous age groups – sending as many as 4 different age teams to Welsh International Super Cup in 2009. The senior team was very inconsistent in last years’s 2nd division prelims. They drew with eventual winners ONGC and defeated Amity United 5-2 but slumped to a 7-1 loss against SESA. Eventually they missed out of qualifying for final round.
Lajong SC created sensation last season when they finished runner-up in Federation Cup. They played decently in I-League and got some wonderful results, including a 4-1 win over Mohun Bagan in Kolkata. However, they were not able to avoid relegation. Lansing Sports Club, another club from Meghalaya will be looking to replicate Lajong’s form from last season. A similar heroic show will be enough to see them through to the final qualifying round.
Fixture list available here