A sweet home coming for North East United’s Kerala lads Alex Saji and Emil Benny

MANJERI: In one of the notable upsets in Indian Football this season, Hero ISL’s bottom side North East United FC stunned League Shield Winners Mumbai City FC 2-1 in the Hero Super Cup at the Payyanad Stadium last Saturday. While it was a momentous night for the North East United, who won only their second game since October, it was even more special for two of their Kerala lads – defender Alex Saji and forward Emil Benny.

“It was a good game against a good team. Even though they don’t have foreign players, most of the team consists of international players. It was very difficult, so we’re happy for the win and three points,” said Saji, born in Wayanad, less than a hundred kilometres from Manjeri.

After a grim Hero ISL season with just five points from 20 games, NorthEast United had nothing to lose and everything to gain going into the Hero Super Cup. There seemed to be no change in their fortunes when they went down 2-4 to Chennaiyin on the opening day. However, the victory over Mumbai City has ignited their spirits and the belief that they can reach the semi-finals now, which was almost impossible to think of before arriving here in Kerala.

“If we did something here, it’s good for us as a team. We conceded four goals in our first game. The guys were nervous after that, but this win made us very happy and confident. We hope to reach the semi-finals,” said Saji.

The Wayanad-lad had never played in Manjeri before but was made to feel at home by the affectionate crowd. “Malappuram, Kozhikode and the entire Malabar region has a vibrant football culture. They are crazy about the game. People are coming to watch us even during fasting. It’s great to see our friends and family here,” Saji added.

As many as seven players in the NorthEast United squad hail from Kerala – Saji, Benny, Mashoor Shereef, Mohammed Irshad, Jithin MS, Gani Nigam and Mirshad Michu. Before the tournament, head coach Floyd Pinto did hope to receive the backing of the local fans, which is how things have panned out so far.

“I’m very happy to play in Malappuram,” said the other Wayanad-born lad Emil Benny. For Benny, Malappuram is almost like his hometown. “I’ve spent a lot of my younger years here. I’ve got many friends here as I finished my studies and played sevens football here. I have also played practice matches at the Payyanad Stadium before.”

The 22-year-old has rapidly climbed the Indian Football ladder. He formed a key part of the Gokulam Kerala side which won back-to-back Hero I-League titles. Benny was also named the Emerging Player of the League in 2020-21 and was snapped up by NorthEast United at the start of last season.

The Hero Super Cup has allowed Benny to return home and showcase his talent in front of his loved ones. “My family saw me play after a long time. I’m very proud to play in front of them. They are proud of me too. We were ecstatic with the victory after such a long winless run. It’s been a difficult season. We worked very hard (against Mumbai City), and we want to continue the same on Wednesday (against Churchill Brothers).

A win for North East United, coupled with a defeat or a draw for Chennaiyin against Mumbai City, will take Floyd Pinto’s side to the semi-final against Odisha FC

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