Up Close And Personal | NEROCA Coach Gift Raikhan Speaks Exclusively After I-League Success 0

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Interview of NEROCA FC Head Coach Gift Raikhan

The state of Manipur has always been the cradle of some of the most brilliant footballers in the country and in the past decade or so it has become much more prominent. Inspite of several footballers coming up from the state, there was not a club from Manipur who represented the state in India’s top flight football league untill NEROCA FC came up.

The story of NEROCA and their journey from the obscurity of regional football to the almost pinnacle of I-League has surprised many. Talk Sports 24X7 decided to catch-up with the man who has been the integral figure in this journey and to be more precise the main man who gave the dreams the form of reality. We are talking about none other than NEROCA FC’s Head Coach Gift Raikhan.

In a conversation with us, Gift Raikhan opened his mind about the club, I-League, Manipur Football and Indian football as a whole.

TS 24X7: First of all congratulations Mr. Raikhan for becoming the runners-up of I-League in the very first season of participating in it! At the start of the season if someone would have told you that NEROCA would be fighting for the title on the last day of the league, would you have believed him?

Gift Raikhan : (Smile) Yeah! I would have believed that.

TS 24X7: You missed the title by a whisker to Minerva Punjab. Looking back do you feel that there were some things which you could do differently or do you feel that Minerva deserved the trophy?

Gift Raikhan : Actually, to be frank, Minerva Punjab are not deserving champions. In the first match against Punjab this season, we were leading but then due to a mistake we conceded. Plus, if you talk about expectations then at the start of season people in India would have not believed that Minerva Punjab would be champions. Because people were expecting Mohun Bagan and East Bengal to become champions. But the people or the fans if you talk about, they expected one team from North-East India to come up. Maybe they expected Aizawl FC as they were last season’s champions but what happened was that NEROCA came up, and in a strong way. But now Minerva Punjab have become champions. Everyone is happy that a team from Punjab has become champions. So it’s good for them, it’s good for Indian football. I do congratulate them for becoming champions. But at the same time, NEROCA FC were also one of the strong contenders.

So personally I was not expecting that Minerva Punjab would be champions, I was expecting that Mohun Bagan or East Bengal will be champions. But hard luck for Mohun Bagan and East Bengal.

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TS 24X7: You have been in the setup of NEROCA since 2015. From thereon becoming champions of I-League 2nd Division and then becoming second in top flight. How crucial role did the players, the support staff and the management played in this journey?

Gift Raikhan : See I can tell this that the most important thing is the management. The management has taken full responsibility of NEROCA FC. You know Thangjam family, they are the owners of the Classic group of hotels, everyone knows that. They are doing so many things for the club. Plus the players, the players we signed, be it junior players or senior players or foreign players, mostly they are not ‘High-profile’. But the best thing with NEROCA FC is that we don’t go for money. We don’t run for very high-priced players. Rather being a new club we want to prove ourselves. As a new coach, as a young coach I also want to prove it rather going for money. So all the players who are involved with NEROCA FC, like I can tell you- Lalit Thapa, Shubhash, Thangjam Saran, Gouramangi, Govin Singh, Sushil Singh and these guys, they did not run for money. They can go anywhere for money but they wanted to help NEROCA FC and they wanted to help Manipur Football. Same thing in my case also. I got many offers from different clubs and from ISL also but I did not go because I wanted to prove it to myself here.
So we worked hard in a humble way and we collectively made a plan with the management of NEROCA FC ie the owners of Classic group of hotels. So from 2nd Division we climbed up slowly and we reached I-League and in the first year we became runners-up. So it’s a big achievement for us and Manipur.

TS 24X7: Super Cup is coming and you will be facing Kerala Blasters in the Pre-Quarter Finals. We talked to Mr. Naoba Thangjam and he criticised the format of the tournament. Do you feel the same and what are your expectations from Super Cup as NEROCA Coach?

Gift Raikhan : See Naoba Thangjam is the CEO of the club, Naoba Thangjam is the Director of the club, Naoba Thangjam is the owner of the club. They have a different plan, they have a different strategy. But as a coach, maybe it’s league or maybe it’s knockout system but that I don’t bother. Only thing for coaches is that we have to coach well and we have to build a good team under any circumstances or under any problem. If NEROCA FC can win against Kerala Blasters, then it would be history, something historical! And it can be, it can offcourse be because it’s football and it’s a matter of ninety minutes. So the way my CEO criticized about the format that’s obviously his own way and you can say that he is right. Because he was there for the meeting when things were shown to the clubs regarding formats. But now, just days before the tournament they declared this knockout system. Fine, but for me be it league or be it knockout both are same cause I need to perform. So his point of views I agree and I support but at the same time I have to do my job which is to compete or to challenge Kerala Blasters anyhow.

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TS 24X7: There have been some players in your squad who have done exceptionally well in I-League this season. But in the probables picked by Stephen Constantine for the Asian Cup Qualifiers, none of them has featured and he has pretty much stucked to his previous set of players. What’s your take on the probables being picked by Mr. Constantine and do you feel that some of your boys should have made the cut?

Gift Raikhan : Yes, see nowadays there is no national camps for India team mostly. Nowadays there are no camps or there are no trials, they pick based upon the performance of the players in ISL and I-League. And then they choose and make a team. See I would not like to comment much on this issue because see they are the superiors, they are the bosses for football in the country. I think they are doing good. I hope they are doing it for the future. Yeah as a coach I can say that some of my players should be in the Indian team. But what to do? It’s upto them. I don’t have any comment about that.

TS 24X7: What’s your future plans? Will you be seen at NEROCA next season or if some better proposals come then those would be under your consideration?

○ Gift Raikhan : See I can’t predict the future. The contract that I am having is only for one year which means the contract is till may and it will expire after the Super Cup. I hope NEROCA FC is happy with me and I am very happy with them. Anything can happen. Because in football nothing is permanent be it players or be it coaches. We are not government employees that we can work for a long time and after working for say 40 years we retire and get pension, no! Football is short-time and as a result anything can happen. I can’t tell what would happen next season.

●TS 24X7: So it seems some proposals have come already then.

Gift Raikhan : HaHa! You know in Calcutta and also here I made a statement that I need to ask my wife before making any decision. So offer? Nobody knows only my wife knows!

TS 24X7: You started your career as a footballer and played as a left-back with merit. From thereon you took charge of Pune FC’s youth teams and you got promoted to the role of Assistant Coach under Mike Snowey. Today you are standing as the runners-up of I-League. World has changed gradually over the years Mr. Raikhan for you. In five years time from now, where and how does Gift Raikhan sees himself and if there are any targets to be fulfilled?

Gift Raikhan : Yeah there is a long way to go. I obviously have a target in my mind and I am very sincerely and honestly working hard for that. And then, I only believe in my work, and I don’t believe on anything else. My gratitude goes to my ex-clubs like Churchill Brothers, HAL, Pune FC, Vasco. I played there for one or two years in each of them. But the most important club in my career is Pune Football Club. They taught me how to do coaching and how to become a professional coach. So I can’t forget them, I can’t forget the owners there- Chirag Tanna and Ashoke Kumar who were there for me. And from there I came to coach here in NEROCA. So I hope that I will do good as I believe in myself and hard-work and I hope God is with me. Wherever I go, I will give my best.

TS 24X7: Thanks Mr. Raikhan for your time and best of luck for Super Cup and also next season, wherever you will be!

Gift Raikhan : Thank you! I think you will be soon calling me back regarding the next season club(smile)!