Problems for NorthEast United FC isn’t just on the field – off the field, the club has been unable to inspire confidence among the fans as they continue to play in front of a near-empty stadium, at home.
On October 20, hardly a few hundred – officially around 7,000 – people turned up at the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium at Sarusajai in Guwahati. Of them, a good number comprised the travelling fans of East Bengal FC.
Continuous defeats due to lacklustre performances meant that barring a few “die-hard” supporters, most find it uninteresting (dare I say boring) to be at the stadium and cheer for the Highlanders.
The NorthEast United FC management’s decision to churn up a relatively new team every season and inability to retain the services of top performers has led to fan fatigue. “The management has been unable to retain the services of fan-favourite players. Top performers are sold out every season. There has been no grassroot work beyond Guwahati. The team, although called NorthEast United, has no presence anywhere in footballing hotbeds like Manipur and Mizoram. With such an attitude of the management, the club is going nowhere,” said an ardent supporter of the club.
Replying to a question from The News Mill, NEUFC assistant coach Paul Groves had said that all good teams are built over time. “Continuity is very important. Ours is at a rebuilding stage and it will take some time to attain fluency,” Groves had said.
Three defeats in as many matches meant that NorthEast United is yet to grab a point at the league this season. While the first match against Bengaluru FC was considered “good play” by the pundits, the next two – against defending champions Hyderabad FC and East Bengal FC at home – were absolute disasters as the Highlanders failed to create better chances or convert the half-chances.
“The last match was not good. We did not create enough chances against Hyderabad FC. However, we deserved at least a draw against Bengaluru FC. The referee decision cost us the point,” coach Marco Balbul said before the East Bengal FC match on October 19.
After the drubbing at the hands of East Bengal on October 20, NEUFC coach Marco Balbul had similar thoughts. “I am really frustrated to lose this game at home. We started very well in the first half and we were the better team on the pitch. We gave them a present with the first goal. They didn’t create any big chances until the first goal. It was our mistake and a big mistake,” he said.
After the match on October 20, East Bengal coach Stephen Constantine sympathised with NorthEast United and said that like his, NEUFC is also going through a process of rebuilding. “When I saw them play their first game against Bengaluru, I thought they absolutely deserved a draw. They played well and they are hard-working. They also have issues rebuilding and are in the same process. Marco (Balbul) has a very tough job… They have some work to do,” he said.
What ails NorthEast United FC?
Supporters say that the club is presenting a half-baked team at the Indian Super League. “The Durand Cup was a great opportunity for the team. But, the management decided to field a team which participated at a C-Division tournament. There was no vision to include at least the Indian contingent of the main team to get some match practice. Besides, the management hardly connect with the fans,” said a member of supporters’ group Highlander Brigade.
— Highlander Brigade (@HighlanderB8) October 20, 2022
Highlander Brigade has been writing ‘open letters’ to the NorthEast United FC management since last many seasons – the latest on August 6, 2022. The supporters’ group has been raising concerns about the lack of progress at the club since its inception. They have been asserting that they want proper team selection and investment in the right areas of development. The Highlander Brigade raised the issue from the stands during the Durand Cup as well.
But, who’s listening?