CHENNAI: In the end, all the permutations and combinations mattered for little. Minerva Punjab FC could have lifted the I-League with a 1-0 win over Churchill Brothers and that is exactly what they did, rendering inconsequential, all other results. It was a triumph Minerva really should have wrapped up a couple of weeks ago and nothing less than what they deserved.
It’s an amazing achievement — nearly being relegated in their debut season and then building a title-winning squad the very next year. But think about what it means for their coach Wangkhem Khogen Singh (in pic). The Imphal man lifted the I-League in his first year of coaching a top-tier outfit. In many ways, Khogen is Minerva personified — nowhere on the Indian football map a few years ago and now champions of the I-League!
Khogen had an unremarkable yet solid playing career, lacing up his boots for the likes of Salgaocar, Air India and ITI. After that he spent time at Manipur club Eastern Sporting Union before moving on to Langsning FC in Shillong. It was there that Minerva found and brought him over to Chandigarh to head the club’s youth development. “Minerva started the pre-season with Spanish coach Juan Luis Perez Herrera,” Khogen says. “But he left before the season started because he was having trouble communicating with the players. After that Minerva owner Ranjit Bajaj offered me the role. I thought it was a great opportunity.”
He may have successfully outmaneuvered more experienced coaches like Khalid Jamil and Sanjoy Sen, but Khogen believes he still has a lot to learn. “I was learning on the job. I had a lot of experience managing younger players, but in the I-League you manage players who are fully formed. I still am learning,” the 47-year-old says.
“When we started the season, nobody was talking, or even thinking, of the title,” Khogen says. “But after 4-5 wins, I realised we had a good team and we would be challenging for it if we maintained our form. The way the players handled themselves throughout the season was exceptional.”
Khogen is not the only coach from the north-east to have had a stellar season. NEROCA’s Gift Raikhan was also in with a chance of winning the title on the final day and eventually finished second. The north-east has always been a conveyer belt for players. So does the duo’s success mean that coaches from the region will be at the forefront of Indian football in coming years? “There is a lot of untapped talent there, even in coaching,” Khogen says. “But they don’t get good exposure. I think a lot of young coaches there can do well if they get out and gain exposure coaching around the country.”
Journey to remember
NEROCA FC wrapped up a memorable I-League debut season by finishing runners-up after holding East Bengal to a 1-1 draw. “We are happy being second. We are a new club and did not have much budget. I dedicate the success to lovely people of Manipur,” NEROCA coach Gift Raikhan said, after the game.