At the banks of the Rangpo river, about 120 kilometres south of Gangtok, Sikkim, lies a small village called Rangoli. Popular among the Silk Route travellers, with the snow-capped mountains in background, Rangoli is serene. And like most of the North East, football runs in the blood of the people here.
It’s no surprise that the State has produced the legend in Bhaichug Bhutia among other top players like Nirmal Chettri and Sanju Pradhan. Slowly joining this league of elite players is Novin Gurung. He, in fact, is the first player from Rangoli to play top-flight football.
Growing up in Sikkim, there was no way that Novin could escape football. By the time he was 10, he had joined the Namchi Sports Hostel from where he was recruited to the State Sports Academy in 2006.
In the next five years, Novin represented the Sports Hostel and his State side in a plethora of tournaments like the Subroto Cup, Junior National Championships, Dr. T Aao North East Football Tournament and even the Santosh Trophy.
“The coaching staff was very good in the state sports hostel, but we didn’t get a lot of chances to play outside. Hence there was no exposure to play outside Sikkim,” says Novin who credits the sports hostel for his strong basics.
His time at the Sports Hostel paid rich dividends when the then 15-year-old was signed up by a local club Sikkim United, a club run by Bhutia himself. “Sikkim United played in the 2nd Division I-League and because of that I thought there will be opportunities hence, it was the realistic dream to pursue football as a career,” says Novin of his decision to join United.
But his journey with United was never a smooth one. In 2013, even after winning the I-League second division, United chose to withdraw from the I-League. Lack of sponsors and financial supports saw Bhutia declare the club bankrupt, leaving the players and staff in a state of shock. “It was really a chaotic time in my career,” recollects the 18-year-old. “Suddenly there was no exposure and opportunities left and people around me had already started doubting my decision to take up football as a profession.
“I tried my luck in Kolkata, but there even second division clubs weren’t interested. It was difficult to sustain financially with continuous travels and failure to make the cut."
But a few years later, his persistence finally paid off. In 2016, Novin was signed up for Shillong Lajong’s U-18 side. While his performance was steady, his phenomenal work ethics ensured that he quickly moved up the ranks.
His big day finally arrived when the Lajong head coach Bobby Nongbet named him in the starting XI for their I-League tie against Churchill Brothers. The right-back, was finally at the right place at the right time. “I don’t have words to express my feelings,” he says recollecting that chilly December evening. “My parents were also going through the same troubles and to finally get into a club that had a future was a blessing.”
The Rangoli lad is a coach’s player. He fleet-footedness coupled by excellent game awareness and ball control has made him a valuable member of the Lajong setup. “Playing as a right-back is crucial because while I handle the defense, I do enough opportunities to attack as well,” he says describing his role in the side.
While he is settled in the Lajong squad, his next step is to grow as a player. However, his dreams are not limited to the football pitch as he believes in a greater cause. “What kept me going throughout my struggle was the thought that I want to make a difference in my village. There isn’t a lot of opportunities there and I wanted to change it by achieving something in football.”
With age on his side and his heart in the right place, Novin Gurung is well set to make it big in the sport he loves.