The fourth round I-League match between Shillong Lajong and Minerva Punjab at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Shillong was an advert for Indian youth football as a total of 12 players under the age of 22, as opposed to the All India Football Federation’s mandatory requirement of two, took to the pitch.

Of these, eight turned out for the home team. Their captain on the day, centre-back Nim Dorjee Tamang, was all of 21 years of age. But all these players are not youth products playing in their first year of the I-League. Tamang is into his third year at the club and his teammate Redeem Tlang into his fourth.

Paradoxical as it may sound, these are young but experienced footballers playing under another young but experienced head. By footballing standards, the 42-year old Thangboi Singto can be classified as young, but is Lajong’s head coach for a fifth I-league season. His first assignment was midway in the 2012-’13 season, guiding the team to safety with 10 games to go after Desmon Bulpin was sacked.

After Khalid Jamil left Mumbai FC to join Aizawl, Singto is now the longest serving coach in charge of a single club in the league.

In Zen mode

The first sight that greets you at the Lajong training grounds is that of a familiar figure clad in all black with spectacles alongside his red duffel bag by his side, having a conversation with his charges and shakes the hand of everyone, player, official or otherwise, in the vicinity.

As I approached, the father of a young boy was deep in conversation with Singto. “My son plays in Arunachal Pradesh. Can he get into a team here?” he asked. Singto spent the good part of 10 minutes patiently explaining the youth recruitment procedures of various Shillong clubs and turned to me as the father left, satisfied with the information he has gained. In this era of rockstar and unapproachable managers sheathed by “club procedure”, there is something in the whole simplicity of the interaction that lingers on in the mind.

Originally from Churachandpur in Manipur, Singto at all places – be it press conferences, on the touchline, training or media interactions – is an unflappable figure, consistent in tempo and tone. In a region known for its passionate supporters, he is an oasis of calm but is aware that fans expect more. He speaks very openly about the club’s slow start this season and low attendance figures.

“It could be the overall performance of the team, everyone wants to see a winning team. Every year we’re there in the I-League, but we’re not able to get to the third position,” Singto said. Lajong’s highest attendance coincided with their best finish of sixth among 13 teams in his first full season at the club, 2013-’14.

Last season, they scored only 14 goals and won most of their points at home, something which looks likely to be repeated this season. But that isn’t enough for Singto. “We need to be a better away team. Home or away, we need to fight. We have only scored two from open play in our four games. This needs to improve and we could have done better against Aizawl.”

Lajong started this season like the last one, slowly, losing their first three games. The first two were away encounters to Bengaluru FC and Mohun Bagan, the toughest games in the calendar.

“Players have to take responsibility”

A veteran of Shillong football, Singto retained only one of his foreign players and brought in Asier Dipanda, who scored seven goals for DSK Shivajians last season and whose best “we are yet to see”. It hasn’t been easy for Singto, losing players to other clubs every season and operating on a paltry budget compared to the rest, but he rejected the notion that Lajong is a feeder club, even as he made the point that three from the club now play for the champion Bengaluru FC.

“We want to promote Northeastern talent and give quality players from Shillong to the national team. We have brought players like Rocus [Lamare] in, who have won titles with Salgaocar at the national level and brings lots of experience with him,” he said, in defence of his methods.

Thrusting youngsters into the limelight is a strategy that both club and coach espouse, as Singto laughed off suggestions that he remains patient to deal with younger players. “We are not talking about 16- or 18-year-olds. You can train hard, but on the match day, the players have to be vocal and responsible. You can pass on tactical info and do your job to the best of your ability, but it is up to the player to carry out the instructions in the end.”

He compares his managerial style to former Spain and Real Madrid manager Vicente Del Bosque, who Singto said has top players and is a gaffer who can “get players into top form.”

Singto, with Yuta Kinowaki at a press conference

“Too early to give them the band”

Even though Tamang was handed the captaincy, Singto said the centre-back from Sikkim needs to be “more vocal” and that he has some potential names but “it is too early to give them the band.” Indeed, Singto has quality at his disposal, the likes of Chinglensana Singh, who has made his mark in the ISL, as well as Rupert Nongrum, who scored his first I-League goal against Minerva, and Isaac Vanlalsawma, who has been called up to the national camp.

When reminded that Royal Wahingdoh have been upstaging them in recent age-group competitions, Singto believes a strong core has helped. “They’ve been playing with the same group of players for sometime now. Before in India, it was only to the TFA (Tata Football Academy) that young footballers could go. Today, you can go to any I-league or ISL club as well. But I believe we have also done well with a core of 4-5 players – Samuel [Shadap], Redeem and Jacob [Lalrawngbawla] have been playing together for a long time.”

A masters in Physical Education and an Asian Football Confederation Pro License holder, Singto said that Lajong believe in the concept of the importance of sports science and equipment, but don’t have the funds to match up to some of the other clubs, “We are in definite support of that and would like to use GPS in training and tools like Instat, but we have to look at our financial capacity also.”

When asked about whether merger talk ever crosses his or the player’s minds, he said, “Most definitely. Lajong has already tasted it, via Northeast United, but I respect the decision of the club owners because they have been in the business for a long time.”

Pushed for his personal views, he said that those who are passionate about football need to see the viability. “Those that put money into the game need to be rewarded. The MLS may have its own no promotion-relegation approach, which is a different approach, but all I want to see is that Indians should be able to play in the league with an Indian coach at the helm.”

Goal for India is a series focusing on the beautiful game from various footballing hotbeds in the country. To read the rest of the stories in this series, click here.