FC Goa did not enjoy a satisfactory campaign in the 2021-22 edition of the Indian Super League (ISL), finishing outside of the playoffs spots for the first time in five years. Injuries to key players, outbreaks of COVID-19 and the exit of Juan Ferrando as head coach were among some of the issues that the Gaurs faced as they huffed and puffed their way to a ninth-place finish.
The club is currently on the path of a revamp, having appointed Carlos Pena as the new head coach. The 38-year-old is quite familiar with the FC Goa way, having represented them as a player for two seasons between 2018 and 2020.
The return of Pena has already sparked an excitement at the club, among fans and players alike – and defender Aibanbha Dohling is no exception. He was a new signing, looking to break into the playing XI in the 2019-20 season, when the Spaniard led the defence.
“Prior to joining FC Goa, I was at Shillong Lajong – the I-League club from my home state, Meghalaya. At that time, I was already a fan of FC Goa and that was why I signed for them,” Aibanbha Dohling recalled.
“And I have only fond memories of my time with Carlos (Pena). We did not play together much, but I learned a lot from him. He was always helpful to the other players, and would never hesitate to offer us help or advice.”
The duo featured together in the final league match of the season, when FC Goa beat Jamshedpur FC 5-0 to secure the ISL shield.
“I came on as a substitute in the second half, and got first-hand experience of how Carlos marshaled our backline. He was constantly giving instructions to us and appreciating our efforts.
“During our training sessions, he would do the same thing, using words of encouragement to make us give it our all. It worked well, and to-date I keep some of his words in mind whenever I am out on the pitch,” Aiban added.
The 26-year-old went on to make nine appearances in the 2020-21 season including once in the AFC Champions League, before making a real impression in the season that followed. During the 2021-22 ISL campaign, he clocked 1349 minutes across 16 games and averaged 2 tackles, 2.13 interceptions, 2.06 clearances and 1.38 blocks per game, in addition to registering his maiden league goal against Kerala Blasters in March.
As a result, he is now one of the key players in the side, and will look to get more minutes under his belt following Pena’s return.
“Carlos Pena easily understands players like me and knows what it takes to stay on this level. That is another reason why I’m excited – you never stop learning as a footballer, and who better to do it from than your coach who is also a former defender?” Aiban explained.
“We’ve also lacked in terms of winning mentality following the lows of last season. Being someone who knows how it feels to lay hands on trophies, Carlos Pena will surely be helping us get back our mentality as well.”
The FC Goa defender also spoke about the emergence of footballers from Northeast India.
“The Northeast has always been a treasure trove of football players. ISL has helped by making us more visible. That is also one of the reasons why I appreciate FC Goa, they acknowledge our quality and give us a platform to showcase our abilities.
“Dheeraj (Singh), Makan Chote, Nongdamba (Naorem) and myself have benefited greatly from the club’s support, and we will strive to give back our very best,” he said.