Royal Wahingdoh, the one-season wonders who didn't have a second chance

Quick - can you name the club that, before Aizawl FC, had produced the best I-League finish among the north-eastern clubs?

It isn't Shillong Lajong, whom Aizawl meet this Sunday. Lajong are known nationwide and will, regardless of Sunday's result, record their best finish in the I-League. The answer is actually another Shillong club: Royal Wahingdoh, who finished third behind Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC in their debut I-League season in 2015.

The club are currently thriving, proud of their achievement and invested in their youth programmes, but Royal Wahingdoh will have nothing to do with the I-League any more. They are happy to field teams in the highly competitive Shillong Premier League (whose lowest division has a waiting list of 30-odd aspirants) as well as I-League under-18 and under-15 events. The rest of it, says club owner Dominic Sutnga, has to do with the circumstances Indian football found itself in with the creation of the Indian Super League (ISL).

Wahingdoh are a perfect example of the havoc the creation of the ISL has unleashed on smaller, community clubs. Speaking to ESPN in his office in the neighbourhood of Laitumkhraw, Sutnga retold the Wahingdoh story.

The club won the Shillong Premier League in their debut season in 2010 (ahead of local strongmen Lajong) and went on to win three titles in a row. Then came the I-League. "We had a revenue model and said, 'Let's show them how we can perform in the first division and then we will go and negotiate for sponsorships'."

The success of the club in their first season of the I-League depended on their core of young players, drawn from the local community; nine out of ten had been scouted at the age of 16-17 and had played with the club for more than three years.

They were on long contracts and it was the same group that had qualified for the 2011 Federation Cup (beating Bhaichung Bhutia's Sikkim United to qualify). They beat Mohun Bagan and Churchill Brothers in the competition, before being stopped by Lajong in the group stages.

When they qualified for the I-League first division, they had, Sutnga said, been "hardened" by competing in the second division for three years. So when they finished third after a few overseas signings, it was no surprise.

"We never thought we'd never do well in the I-League, we always knew we'd do well, we knew what kind of players we had. We knew the kind of talent we had."

While playing in the second division, the junior team was sent on tours to South Africa and the seniors to play second and third division sides in Germany. Wahingdoh's I-League first division debut was followed by eight players being picked for India, including Jackichand Singh, Seityasen Singh and Reagan Singh. What happened afterwards is a classic case of the AIFF tripping over its own feet with the creation of the ISL.

"The ISL and its pizzazz took over everything," says Sutnga. "Everybody we approached said, 'We are going to the ISL now, all the eyeballs are there as it's done well'." The numbers game worked off television and the pictures it presented. "If you look at how an I-League game is conducted on TV and how it is for the ISL, there's a huge difference. Why would they sponsor me for an I-League game? It [the coverage] is horrible."

After one season in the top flight, Wahingdoh pulled out of the 2016 season because they didn't think their season would be sustainable in the ISL era in terms of marketing and sponsorships.

Wahingdoh didn't want to be pumping crores into a league that, for all its current official status, is not sure of its place in the AIFF's plans. Sutnga asks a simple question: "Why didn't IMG, which was marketing partner for the I-League, market the I-League as they did the ISL?"

The ISL now is seen as the event where everyone's bucks and eyeballs are now directed. "Everything is now concentrated there. We decided to concentrate with the youth programme. The youth have been performing well." In the first I-League under-15s last year, Wahingdoh were runners-up to Minerva and made the final round qualifying from the north-east region in the under-18s as well, and have done so again in both age groups this year.

Sutnga and Wahingdoh have a clear roadmap for team success and it has worked at every level they have competed in. "It's a few simple things, you need to get the talent, nurture it, make sure those players stay with you for a long time, look at their attributes, make sure they improve on attributes that they need to make sure they play together, gel together."

He appreciates Aizawl's success. "Aizawl have done a tremendous job, they have a lot of talent. They [Mizoram] are one of the most talented states in Indian football. They got their league going, they won the Santosh Trophy in 2014 and results have come now for Mizoram. Look at Aizawl. You don't have to have a big budget."

He will be watching the Shillong-Aizawl match on Sunday and says, "For me I hope Aizawl win it and make it, it would be the icing on the cake."

Wahingdoh, Sutnga says, don't mind being a feeder or a nursery club, but are looking for a more coherent structure from the AIFF. "Not everybody can be a Chelsea or a Man United, we understand that, but we don't mind being a smaller Leicester City club or a second division club that provides and feeds. But find us a slot where we feel that we can do justice - what is my budget, how can I optimise how I run things, you have to find us that slot. Now what we have is all over the place. Find us a slot and the revenue model of sustainability should be there."