Indian Football: How a club, playing without a coach, is close to winning Second Division League and gaining promotion to I-League
Football has taken TRAU places. From Imphal, the capital of Manipur, they travelled as far south as Bengaluru for a Second Division League game. Last year, TRAU even made a journey west to reach Srinagar in the northern part of India to play football. But sometimes, the travails of a simple voyage make it arduous.
Ask a Bengalurean and he'll tell you the journey from the city to the Kempegowda International Airport is more strenuous than the long flight that he might take across the globe.
And for TRAU FC (Tiddim Road Athletic Union Football Club), it was the journey to the neighbouring state Mizoram's capital Aizawl that proved to be the toughest.
TRAU, though, didn't have that luxury of a Bengalurean of taking a flight from Imphal to Aizawl. With no direct connectivity between the two state capitals, the options for TRAU was to take a flight to Guwahati in Assam and then board another one to Aizawl, or hire a bus and hit the road.
TRAU chose the latter. And it took them 48 hours.
But in 90 minutes, they dismantled Chhinga Veng FC of Aizawl 3-1 at the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium and kicked off their Second Division League final round campaign in style. In this final round, the four teams play against one another in a home and away format and whoever tops the table at the end of six rounds is crowned the Second Division champion, gaining promotion to the I-League.
After 3 matches, TRAU FC top the table with 3 wins and are the overwhelming favourites to secure the Second Division League trophy. And all this while playing in the absence of their head coach L Nandakumar Singh, who has been sidelined due to... election duty!
Speaking after the 2-0 win over Ozone FC Bengaluru, TRAU's third victory in the final round, team manager Laishram Ibomcha Singh explained:
"Nandakumar works in the Electricity Board of the Manipur State and he's incharge of ensuring all the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) are supplied with power during the election.
"For this reason, he couldn't travel to Bengaluru and will be available only after our away game against Lone Star Kashmir on May 12."
T Phulen Meitei, the TRAU secretary, said Nandakumar was with the team in spirit. "Each one of these players was handpicked by Nandakumar Singh and he knows the traits of each one of them.
"He may not be in Bengaluru physically, but his effects were seen in the team's performances in Bengaluru and other places."
In Nandakumar's absence, Ibomcha, who also serves as the president of the club, travels with the team and takes care of all the organisation.
"Boy, was that bus journey hectic! It took us 2 days going in that trecherous road and I was awake the whole time to make sure the driver doesn't take a bad turn. Later, when the players were gearing up for the match, I slept nicely," Ibomcha says.
Ibomcha too worked in the Water Supply Board of the Manipur State government but escaped election duty due to retirement.
"I was an ordinary member but all the others proposed my name for the president. My brother was part of TRAU FC during his playing days and we wanted to keep our contribution to football going," Ibomcha casually mentions.
TRAU eyeing I-League promotion
At a time when no one is sure of what the Premier Division of the country is going to be, whether the Indian Super League (ISL) would be given the top-flight status over the I-League, teams playing in the Second Division League suffer from a lack of motivation to perform better.
Think about it. You are playing the Second Division and want to win it to reach the top division. However, if a club wins the Second Division League this season and gains promotion to the I-League, that team will end up playing second tier football again next season.
TRAU, however, have intentions beyond gaining promotion. "If NEROCA FC can do it, why not TRAU?" says Phelen, drawing attention to NEROCA FC being the first team from Manipur to play the top division.
"Ours is a team that's older than NEROCA. We've won the CC Meet, a tournament we Manipuris consider bigger than the I-League itself, six times.
We're the first champions of the Sikkim Chief Minister's Cup. We also have a good record in the Bordoloi Trophy held in Assam.
"So when NEROCA played the I-League, they served as an inspiration to us. We wanted to make that shift to promote our local talent and we did so in the 2017-18 season when we jumped to the Second Division League.
"And right now, we're motivated to win the second division and move onto the I-League. The roadmap is not clear yet but we want to do it for ourselves."
Supporting the football culture - TRAU FC
One remarkable aspect of TRAU's campaign has simply been about their reliance on homegrown players to carry them through.
Apart from the two foreigners Princewill Emeka and Joseph Mayowa Olaleye, about 90 per cent of the players in the side are from Manipur. Goalkeeper Mithun Samonto joined TRAU from Peerless SC and defender Shahabaaz Khan was roped in from Bengaluru FC at the start of the season to complete TRAU FC.
Playing in a 4-4-2 formation, TRAU invite the opposition to come at them and attack on the counter with the pace of forward Princewill, midfielder Yami Longvah and striker Ngangbam Naocha Singh carrying them through. Against Ozone on Wednesday, the scoreline was only 2-0 but TRAU could have at least won by a five-goal margin if they had converted all their chances.
At one moment, TRAU got so tired of dominating the play that Princewill, furious with his teammates for not passing the ball to him, hit the post deliberately.
"Every time they wanted the ball, I created the chance and passed. But when I wanted the ball, they kept playing and I was angry," Princewill reflected later on a lighter note.
The team came together after full time to thank the thin crowd of Manipuris at the stadium who outnumbered the number of supporters for Ozone. While one staff member sprayed water from the cooler on the rest, the team joyfully clicked photos with their invitees on the ground. It almost felt like a family was on the pitch celebrating a tournament victory.
"We like to be the platform for Manipuri players to showcase their talent in the national stage," Phelen added. "More than playing for a salary, our lads play for the pride of Manipur, which makes them extremely loyal and committed to the team.
"It's because of our reliance on our own players that we believe we will have a sustainable model to play in the I-League. We won't spend a humongous amount of money on player salaries unlike clubs which have shut shop like Pune FC, Bharat FC, DSK Shivajians etc.
"We also have contributions coming in from our members and it's sort of like a family. We believe the I-League is where we have to be and want to get there by the end of this Second Division League."
TRAU, however, are only halfway there. They play Lone Star on May 12 and then host Ozone on May 19. Their last game, which could probably decide the title, will be against Chhinga Veng at home on May 25.
Football really does take you places, doesn't it?