When the former India Under-17 coach Nicolai Adam was introduced to Jeakson Singh Thounaojam, he had his doubts. The German sized up the midfielder with the other Manipuri footballers around and found him too tall. In Adam’s limited experience, footballers from Manipur were short. So the coach suspected that Jeakson was overage and dropped him.
It was a tough time. Jeakson’s family members saw that he did not take the disappointment well. However, redemption was near. It all changed when India played the twice Nike Premier Cup (the Under-16 league) champion, Minerva Punjab FC. A 1-0 defeat prompted soul searching and the selection of six players from the club. Jeakson was one of them.
His height was no longer an obstacle. In fact, it was his tall stature which plunged him into fame on Monday night. Jeakson, for obvious reasons, is one of India’s intended targets on a corner. But before he scored the country’s first ever goal, there was a change in strategy.
“We had practiced the corner routine. But I changed my position. (Anwar) Ali was going to the near post and I was supposed to go to the far post. But Ali told me that he will go to the far post and asked me to move to his position. I had a feeling that the ball would come to me. I was man marked, so I made the run and the ball was perfect. I jumped high.”
As he should. But there’s another attribute to his game which is not as obvious. It is Jeakson’s sense of positioning. Arguably, that was more crucial to his goal than the fact that he could reach the ball with his height. Jeakson was not the tallest player. He did not rise the highest. But as he revealed on Tuesday, he made the run. He was in the right place to head home Sanjeev Stalin’s exceptional ball.
Jeakson’s sense of positioning set him apart all game against Colombia. Coach Luis Norton de Matos had overlooked the midfielder for the first match versus the United States. But looking to have a better control over proceedings in the central areas, Matos picked Jeakson.
Unlike some of his other decisions on Monday, this was contentious in the least. It also helped that Jeakson was playing alongside his childhood friend and skipper, Amarjit Singh. In the village of Haokhao, Deben Thounaojam began training Amarjit at the age of six. Deben is Jeakson’s father. However, he did not want his younger son to play football. Deben himself had been a footballer for a few Manipur-based teams while Jeakson’s brother Jonichand is a current professional who represented India’s Under-19 team. The father would often play football with his sons but he envisaged a different future for Jeakson. However, a brain stroke left him indisposed and his youngest revealed he does not talk much anymore.
Jeakson overcame the resistance at home. But there was still work to do. “I changed my game a lot. When I was at CFA (Chandigarh Football Academy), I did not know much about my role. I only knew the basics and had some match experience. Then I moved to Minerva, I played with the seniors and discussed football with them. They made me aware of the demands of my position and I learnt a lot from them. I won the I-League (Under-16) twice with Minerva and then the AIFF match led to my selection.”
Although it was Nongdamba Naorem who scored the winning goal against AIFF academy, Jeakson stood out for his display. His goal against Colombia may not have come as a surprise to those who have followed his journey. He is known to provide crucial assists or goals when his team needs him. In the inaugural Nike Premier Cup final last year, Jeakson scored from a freekick to pull Minerva level with Royal Wahingdoh. As the skipper of the side, he eventually lifted the trophy after a penalty shootout win.
So, unlike his idol Sergio Busquets, he is a holding midfielder who can be relied upon in the final third. It’s his burgeoning confidence which sets him apart. Some of the credit for that could goes to Ranjit Bajaj, the owner of Minerva Punjab FC.
“He’s the owner but for me, he’s like a brother. He has given me a lot of chances. He has always believed that I will go far in my career. So, I was given a chance to play with the seniors in Durand Cup and DSK Cup. I became more confident after playing with them”, said Jeakson.
Now, with the final group game to go, the midfielder is aware that the good times are likely to end soon. Ghana is arguably the best side in this group and India is yet to acquire a point. But Jeakson, who has already etched his name in history, will seek to add a few more lines to his story. He stood out for a long time because he was tall. Now, he stands tall.
Updated Date: Oct 11, 2017 14:39 PM