The striker talks about playing overseas, his time at Mohun Bagan, the progress of the national team and more.

One of the most lethal Indian strikers of recent times, Jeje Lalpekhlua has been in red-hot form since the Indian Super League (ISL) started this season. The Chennaiyin FC striker fired in seven times in 15 games, which haS made him the second highest Indian goalscorer of the season.

Known for his vision and movement in front of  goal, Khel Now’s Chennai correspondent Praveen R. Paramasivam found the prolific striker even more elegant when he talked about himself, the future of Indian football and his goals for the future.

Every top player goes through a dip every now and then, and Jeje Lalpekhlua understands it quite well. He also knows that one thing helps him be at the top of his game: hard work. “Sometimes in sports, especially football, you are at the top and sometimes you’re down,” stated Jeje Lalpekhlua. “For me, I always remember to work harder every day, both on the pitch and in the training ground.”

Jeje has been an integral part of Chennaiyin’s attack this season

If his being a self-motivated individual wasn’t enough, he now plays under a coach who’s known to maximize his personnel’s potential and ensure they give their 100% on the pitch day in, day out. “John Gregory has deployed me as a lone striker this season,” said the 27-year-old forward, of the new Chennai boss.

“The coach has instructed me to work very hard. For instance, he demands that I always chase the defender who has the ball. I simply follow his orders.” Under the Englishman, he’s scored seven goals in 15 appearances this season, the second most by an Indian player this season, only behind India skipper Sunil Chettri, who’s scored eight in as many appearances.

Under former Chennai coach Marco Materazzi, especially in his final season at the helm, he was criminally under-utilized, as he was overlooked in favour of underwhelming foreign imports Dudu Omagbemi and Davide Succi, but the Mizoram striker had not a bad word about the Italian coach. However, he reckons Chennaiyin are a more complete side this time out.

“Before the season started, I had said that the squad was one of the best squads we had ever had,” he recalled. “In the first three seasons, we had good players like Elano Blumer and Stiven Mendoza, who were special individual talents. This year, everybody is equally important in this squad. When Raphael [Augusto] went off we had Rene [Mihelic] do his job. [Jaime] Gavilan could also cut the mustard. If I get an injury, [Mohammed] Rafi or someone else will do what I do. Not only do we have 18 good players, everybody on the roster is important this season.”

Jeje was awarded Fans’ Player Of The Month for December this season

Chennaiyin have managed to return to their dominant selves again this season after missing out on the playoff berth last season. Even though they now sit third, just one point behind southern rivals Bengaluru, he remains cautious. “We have done quite well thus far, as we sit second, but we can’t sit back and relax.”

While the Marco Materazzis and John Arne Riises have put Chennai on the world football map and Dhanapal Ganesh has been the local icon, he has been the national superstar who doesn’t just sell tickets but also delivers on the pitch. In a way, he’s been Chennai’s chief representative, and the enthusiasm with which he spoke out the club tells one he’s not in Chennai merely for pay-checks.

“At Chennai, we’ve done quite well since the first season,” he asserted. “It’s nice to represent Chennai from the first year. The players change teams every year as most teams prefer to start from scratch but, at Chennai, we intend to build a family. This year, we have retained a few old players – me, Dhanachandra [Singh], Jerry [Lalrinzuala], Karanjit [Singh] and Pawan [Kumar]. We don’t just want to build a good team; we want to build family that works and fights together.”

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To that effect, Lalpekhlua fondly recalls the one time what he calls a family lifted the ultimate prize. “We didn’t start well that season, and I still remember the final – it was amazing,” he said, with a contented smile not many footballers have been deserving of. “We were a goal down. In the dying moments, Stiven Mendoza did a great job, and we won the trophy. For footballers, lifting trophies is special.”

However, none of his could have happened had he not convinced his father to let him choose football as a choice of career. “In 2004, when I was in class X, I told my father that I wanted to become a footballer,” he recalled. “I joined, after completing class X, Ari Benjamin Football Academy in Aizawl. Two months in, I played for my constituency in the Constituency MLA Cup. From there, I made the Mizoram under-19 side. Shortly afterward, I received a call from the India under-19 coach and was selected. In 2007, I signed for Pune Football Club, where I started playing professionally.”

While it’s fair to say Indian Super League has afforded him the recognition he rightfully deserves, he looks back at his I-League career with Mohun Bagan with gratification. “It’s always special to represent Mohun Bagan, he said. “I still remember when I won the I-League with them. Mohun Bagan is a big, big club. The fans are fantastic – they’re amazing. I’m lucky to represent Mohun Bagan.”

When asked which league he deemed more difficult, without a moment’s thinking, he answered, “ISL.” He continued as we asked him to justify his stance, “ The I-League is tough as well, but the ISL is of better quality. The ISL is more difficult and perhaps, more physical. Every team wants to keep the ball and when you make a mistake, you get punished.”

Jeje is the second highest Indian goalscorer in the ISL this year

On the future Jeje Lalpekhluas of Indian football, he said “I think 2017 was a great season for Indian football, with the senior national side going unbeaten and the U-17 boys doing well. The youngsters didn’t win a game, but they performed very well. I saw so many players with the potential to play for the senior side in the future. I particularly liked Dheeraj Singh, Anwar Ali, Suresh Singh Wangjam and Boris Singh Thangjam. Boris Singh, the right-back, in particular, bossed the right flank.”

While he conceded that the upcoming AFC Asian Cup would be difficult, he hoped that Stephen Constantine’s all-round coaching would help them progress further. “He’s is very good coach,” he opined. “I’ve learnt a lot from him since he’s taken charge. Every national player has learnt a lot from him. At the training ground, he encourages us to work hard on the pitch and off it. I hope we keep up the progress we’ve made as a team since his taking charge.”

Much like every other top players in the country, he wants to play overseas, but this was the only answer that had a hint of uncertainty in his voice over the course of the interview was, “My aim is to play, maybe, one season abroad. This is my aim, but I don’t know what’s going to happen. Let’s hope for the best.”