ISL: Sandesh Jhingan optimistic of Kerala’s turnaround

Kerala Blasters is in a dogfight for a spot in the playoffs, but captain Sandesh Jhingan isn’t overly perturbed.

Wes Brown (right) “is one of the most humble guys in the team,” says Sandesh Jhingan (right).   -  Stan Rayan

Kerala Blasters FC has made a lukewarm start to its Indian Super League campaign this year in what has been an eventful first half of the season. It became the first side to part ways with its coach after René Meulensteen was shown the door at the turn of the New Year, and is in a dogfight for a spot in the playoff positions. Yet, captain Sandesh Jhingan is unperturbed and feels there is light at the end of the tunnel.

“There are still 10 games. We win all 10, we will be above everyone else. It’s as simple as that,” Jhingan told Sportstar on the eve of his side’s visit to Delhi Dynamos. His side did beat Dynamos, a comfortable 3-1 win on Thursday, as his aim of winning the rest of the games, a not so simple matter of 27 points, could yet be a possible feat.

However, things have not been as straightforward as the India international would have envisioned at the start of the season. The 2016 finalist is currently placed seventh in the standings, and only debutant Jamshedpur FC, struggling North East United FC and whipping boys of the season Delhi Dynamos are below the Kerala side. Finding the back of the net has been Blasters' achilles heel with the side scoring only four goals in five matches at home.

This is not a familiar territory for the Blasters, which in 2015 sacked its coach Peter Taylor after only six matches into the season. The dismissal didn’t help as the yellow outfit limped to finish bottom of the table.

Jhingan, however, remains optimistic with the arrival of David James, who led the side to the final in the inaugural season in 2014, when the former England goalkeeper played the dual role of captain and coach. “David gave me my first ISL start in the first season (2014), so to have him back is great. He is a very motivated guy, always pumped up. It’s been great from day one in the first season and now too. Hopefully this season we can together lift the title,” he said.

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The defender also had some warm words for the outgoing coach. “I have always been blessed to have trained and played with a lot of great coaches. And Rene, of course, has given me a lot. I almost made 80 passes during the game against Jamshedpur. That’s what Dutch coaches bring to the side - to play out from the back. He showed me a lot of things which I didn’t know about myself, very important things, which improved me a lot,” said Jhingan, who has also worked with Englishmen Stephen Constantine, Terry Phelan, Steve Coppell in his career.

Personal success

On a personal level, it has been a season of landmarks for the 24-year-old centre-back from Chandigarh. He was handed the armband to lead the likes of established internationals such as Dimitar Berbatov, Wes Brown and Iain Hume. He also became the first Indian player to record 50 appearances in the competition. “Leading a side doesn’t have anything to do with age but yes I am enjoying it. I like responsibility and I like being the captain. I have been captain of India and Kerala Blasters so I am enjoying it,” quipped Jhinghan.

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The addition of Berbatov and Wes has been immeasurable according to Jhingan. “Credit to those players for the way they have accepted me as a leader. To accept me as a captain shows their humbleness. It’s great for me as well to play with them.”

Fanboy moment

Brown, who was injured at the start of the season, has instilled organisation into the side ever since he made his ISL debut in the win over North East United in December. Playing alongside the former Manchester United and England defender has been an enriching experience for Jhingan.

“Wes (Brown) is one of the most humble guys in the team and to have a player of that standard, who has played for Man United and has won the Champions League twice, has been great. He has a lot of influence on the side and in a good way. And since I'm a Man United fan, having him in my team is a fan moment as well.”

Thankless job

The fourth season of the ISL has been remembered for quite a lot of the wrong reasons, including planning and poor officiating. However, the poor standard of defending, especially the goalkeeping gaffes, has come under scrutiny. Some 120 goals have been scored so far in 45 matches, a rate of 2.67 goals per match, but errors from Indian custodians in between the stick have resulted in over 25 goals and counting.

The centre-back felt the criticism was unwarranted as the 'keeper especially had a thankless job. “It’s very hard in football. Of course, you try your best to avoid such situations. But it’s bound to happen. It’s especially hard for the goalkeepers if you make a mistake. If forwards make a mistake, the midfielder is there to save it. If the midfielder makes a mistake, we defenders are there to save it. Unfortunately for the ‘keepers if they make one mistake in a game where they make 100 saves, no one will remember it (the saves). It’s pretty harsh on them. I think we are blaming the ‘keepers way too much.”

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