Editor’s note: This profile was originally published ahead of the Fifa Under-17 World Cup.
At the Sector 42 stadium complex, the Chandigarh Football Academy’s practise is in full swing. It’s filled with boys from the North Eastern state of Manipur; boys who are generally on the shorter side compared to their other peers, especially the ones from Punjab.
However, this age-old generalisation is crumbling as the Under-15’s and their coaches recall one of the tallest ones to set foot in the academy.
Shibananda Singh, a central defensive midfielder who’s just finished playing in the Subroto Cup for the U-15’s, recalls Jeakson (Singh) bhaiya as “huge” and a “prankster”. At 6 feet 2 inches with a fierce shot, not only does Jeakson tower over his state contemporaries, but is taller than most Indian footballers.
His reputation around these parts is that of a fighter with a light-hearted, jovial personality to go with his tenacity. The ex-captain of the Minerva Under-16’s was rebuffed more than once in his effort to join the team under Nicolai Adam, but he persisted and was rewarded with a spot when he led the Punjabi club to a 1-0 victory over his current team, the India Under-17’s.
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Father and son
Half an hour away from Imphal, the village of Haokhao in the district of Thoubal will be rejoicing India’s participation at the World Cup.
The captain of the team, Amarjit Singh Kiyam started training under Jeakson’s father Deben Thounaojam when the pair were six. Deben, himself a footballer for Manipuri clubs NISA and Manipur Police, held a public sector job at the latter, has always been unwilling to apply for a professional football license due to a lack of a formal education.
With Jeakson’s elder brother, Jonichand pursuing a career in football at the St. Stephen’s Academy, Chandigarh, Deben wanted his younger son to become a doctor. Jonichand, a former India Under-19 player and now plying his trade at Calcutta Football League team Peerless, says Jeakson, who had been playing football since he was four, was unhappy with his father’s decision and refused to accept it.
“Father finally relented but things at home had become tight. He [Deben], suffered a brain stroke and had to leave his job. Back in Imphal, they skipped meals sometimes while I was training in Chandigarh. Whatever money we had, was from my mother selling vegetables and stitching clothes. It was not until I got a contract that things eased up,” says an emotional Jonichand.
“He has brought some cheer to the household. His inclusion and him convincing my father to lead a cleaner, alcohol-free life. He is unyielding and maybe that’s a good thing.”
The stuff of legend
When Amarjit and Jeakson were being dropped off at the Chandigarh Football Academy, coach Sandeep Singh was informed that Amarjit was well-behaved but Jeakson was notorious and that he should keep an eye on the youngster.
Despite the warnings, Sandeep Singh says he never faced any problems from Jeakson. His antics, though, are the stuff of legend around the academy.
“Once a ground staff asked Jeakson how many times he could juggle the ball. Jeakson asked him to go have tea and come back, and told me that he wouldn’t train that day, only juggle. Sure enough, he did 8,000 repetitions that day,” the coach said.
At CFA, Jeakson started working harder after being rejected for the Chandigarh state team for the Subroto Cup. “That child is as tenacious as they come,” Sandeep added.
Jeakson also has the uncanny ability to come up with the goods when it matters. After being rejected at the Chandigarh trials for potential candidates for the Under-17 team, he decided that he wanted to play in the I-League and moved to the Minerva Academy, which was playing in the Under-15 league.
Appointed captain of the team and down 1-0 to Royal Wahingdoh in the final, Jeakson stepped up and struck a direct free kick home. Minerva eventually won the game, which went to penalties.
Amanpreet Singh, ex-Minerva coach and now at the St. Stephens Academy, recalls how Jeakson bailed out the U-16’s on another occasion, “Our senior team, the U-18’s had lost to CFA in the senior state championships. Jeakson told me that his team would beat CFA. The youngest of the team then, he played out of his skin as an attacking midfielder and registered the assist that would be pivotal in us beating them.”
Often deployed as the holding midfielder in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1, Amanpreet says Jeakson was reticent at first and did not show enough aggression initially, although his ball holding and distribution skills were good.
Overlooked by Nicolai Adam, the I-League win allowed Minerva a shot at the Under-17 team in Goa. As Nongdamba Naorem scored for Minerva in a huge upset, Luis Norton de Matos picked up skipper Jeakson, Nong and four other players in a huge team shuffle.
Onlookers commented that Jeakson had been the best player of the match and his shot was deserved. Jonichand wasn’t surprised, “After he had got rejected the first time, he told me, ‘brother, my time will also come’.”
Jeakson Singh’s time has indeed arrived.