The India international talks about the season so far, the FIFA U-17 World Cup and national team’s magical run. 

To see no-nonsense centre-backs walking at snail’s pace and having light conversations is strange. Followers of the beautiful game are accustomed to seeing them running for 90 minutes and shouting instructions at their teammates. Our feelings weren’t any different as we met Kerala Blasters captain Sandesh Jhingan at the team hotel.

The Blasters are no strangers to slow starts in the Indian Super League (ISL). With a potent attacking line-up at their disposal, they have only managed six points from their first five games this season. But, Jhingan is not worried and believes it’s too early to judge the two-time finalists.

The Kerala Blasters captain helped his side with a well-directed assist to equalise matters against Chennaiyin FC

“It’s bit disappointing. Our first three games were at home and we could have got at least seven points from them. We are always slow starters and in the two seasons (we) made it to the final we didn’t have the best of starts. When the season started my concern was about the quality of football we are playing and I believe we are playing good football,” he said.

Blasters boast a stellar forward line this season but goals have been hard to come by. Rene Meulensteen’s side have scored only four goals so far and struggled to find fluency upfront. “We have a good attacking lineup but if you don’t have good supply of quality balls from the back they can’t do much. So, the team needs to play well together to get the goals in. We are a scoring team and will score more as the season goes on,” the defender opined reflecting on the team’s goalscoring woes.

The new season has come with a bigger responsibility for the Blasters defender as he was appointed the captain of the team. Jhingan’s tally of 46 games is the highest by any player in a yellow shirt. So, is he enjoying the added responsibility?   

“It’s a great moment for me. I am trying my best to be a good captain. But, being part of the dressing room I think I am the same. I have been always vocal inside the changing room. Responsibility-wise it is important to lead by example; being punctual (laughs), training hard and showing more in discipline on the ground.”

The FC Goa game, partnership with Lakic-Pesic and the impact of Meulensteen

Talking about discipline, Blasters endured a torrid evening in Goa after the Gaurs handed them a 5-2 thrashing. It was not the first time the Kerala outfit conceded five goals in a match as Mumbai City FC had also given them away blues last season. Jhingan revealed the FC Goa result was hard to take.

“I found it hard to sleep after the FC Goa game, like any other player when you suffer such a big defeat. But, if I keeping thinking ‘Oh this happened, that happened’ then it will affect my game and you don’t want that. I am glad that we bounced back against NorthEast United and that shows the character of this side,” the centre-back said.

He is one among the few young players in the country who have been lucky enough to play along with world class players like Carlos Marchena, Aaron Hughes, Wes Brown and so on. Serbia’s Nemanja Lakic-Pesic is his new partner at the heart of the defence and the duo has already helped the team keep three clean sheets so far.

The Indian National Team centre-back has one of the deepest relationships with his fans

“I have really enjoyed playing with Lakic-Pesic. Apart from the FC Goa game, we have done really well and I believe in this partnership. He trusts me and I trust him a lot. It’s all about the bonding; we have our meals together. I am learning from him and he’s a good matured player,” said Jhingan.

The Indian international who has played under numerous foreign coaches pointed out the Jamshedpur FC game as a perfect example of Meulensteen’s philosophy. “I, as a centre-back, completed 70-80 passes in the game. I don’t know any game in which I have completed these many passes. Rene (Meulensteen) gives you that confidence to keep the ball and wants you to play attacking football.”

A lot has changed in the ISL since its inception in 2014. The Indian and foreigner player ratio has seen some changes over the years. Jhingan, the league’s first poster-boy, though happy with the current ratio, would prefer seven Indian players in the starting lineup.

Success of FIFA U-17 World Cup and national team  

It has been a landmark year for Indian football. The FIFA U-17 World Cup was a resounding success and the national team under Stephen Constantine made a huge leap in the FIFA rankings. The Blasters skipper was excited to talk about Luis Norton de Matos’ wards and believes the country showed it has got what it takes to host a FIFA event.

“At 17 I was just crap. Those boys were incredible and watching them play football was so enjoyable. Also, the way we hosted the tournament was outstanding. The turnout for most of the matches was excellent. It shows how much we love football and I hope we get to host bigger tournaments like this.” 

The national team’s qualification to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup was one of the major highs for Constantine and his boys. They are also on a 13-game unbeaten run and Jhingan credits team’s resurrection to the Englishman.

Sandesh Jhingan vs Iran | LCB | No 5 | Tackles | Blocks | Passes | 2015

“We ended the whole of 2017 without a defeat. It shows how much we have improved in footballing terms. I always think of Stephen (Constantine) as a good motivator. He keeps everything well-disciplined and is a great leader. We lost six out of seven World Cup qualifiers. Most teams go down from there, but we showed great character and went on to claim a place in the 2019 Asian Cup,” he asserted.

Playing under pressure, the impact of Kerala Blasters fans   

Though Blasters have lost both their finals in the ISL, the defender denied that it has anything to do with being overawed by the occasion and said he loves playing under pressure.

“When I was a kid, my dream was to play in front of sell-out crowds and to be part of matches that will be remembered for long. When you get to that stage and if you get nervous it will be like cheating yourself. In both finals, none of our players were under pressure, it’s just football – sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.”   

Most of the country’s best players have at one time or another plied their trade with either Mohun Bagan or East Bengal. So, will we see Jhingan playing for any one of the Kolkata giants in the near future?

“It’s a proud moment for any player to play for Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. But, I never dreamed of playing for any particular club. My dream was always to play for my country and become a professional footballer. I wanted to experience the feeling, but now I am a Kerala Blasters player,” he said.

The 24-year-old reiterated his desire to play abroad and is optimistic about his chances of following in the footsteps of his India teammates Sunil Chhetri and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.

The Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi has always been a lucky venue for Jhingan and Blasters. It was where the centre-back got the biggest break of his career and scored his first ever international goal. “Home is our biggest strength. The fans here are amazing and give us that extra boost. As our former head coach Steve Coppell used to say, ‘Let them give you wings’,” he added.