Downtown boy with an upswing story: Jackichand tales

Jackichand Singh has established himself a key player in the FC Goa's set-up.

"Those days you didn't even have a football… or needed one even," Jackichand Singh laughs as speaks about the carefree days of his youth.

"Football was just easier to play," says the Indian international. "There is a green colour fruit, nobab (Pomelo). We used to pluck that and make footballs out of it. Then after grinding the rice and the husk, we used to put that in our socks. That's how we played. Sometimes at our villages during elections we used to get footballs for free, so that's when we got the ball."

The FC Goa winger is relaxed, warm and speaks with an easy charm. The demeanour is a stark departure from his on-field persona, a blur of tattoos and jersey kicking up the grass as he tears down the wings.

After crashing into Indian football's consciousness during his time at Royal Wahingdoh in 2014 -  he won the player of the year award the following year - the 27-year-old has now cemented himself as one of the most dangerous wingers in the country, especially since rediscovering his mojo at under Sergio Lobera at FC Goa.

"Everywhere, I was surprised with my career. First year I played the I-league, I was the best player and the same year I played for India (2015). There is a local tournament in Manipur, the biggest there. Playing there was my dream as a child. India seemed too far away then," he says.

When it all started for Jacki - as he is fondly called - there was little. His comfortable life in Goa now seemed farther than the 2300 odd miles from Manipur. All he had was his heart-on-sleeves attitude that has got him this far. That heart now bears the names of his wife and child while his better half’s birth year is tattooed on his arm.

"My father was a farmer but nothing was ours," he opens up. "He used to farm on another person's land. From our one year of produce, the landowner would get half of it. Mom's tea stall was right next to a ground. So, the kids who play there would leave the ball with my mother and come in the evening to play. The whole day that ball used to be with me. I didn't do much schooling either. I would just keep playing with the ball all day. I didn't feel hungry when I was playing, even if I was playing alone."

The hunger for football, though, still burns bright. It's visible every time he sets off the afterburners and motors around the field. He believes his speed and stamina comes from sprinting up the hill for 1.5 km to reach his training ground as a child.

He took his baby steps under L Lokendro, a national referee, who doubled as a local coach. Lokedro would keep an eye on how teams trained during his refereeing assignments and reproduce them to coach the young boys. While he imparted technique and strategy, Jacki had to fend for himself when it came to football gear which was unaffordable, starting from the shoes. He had to either use desi methods as substitute for shoes or opt for second-hand ones.

"I didn't have a boot,” he tells you. “I used to wear ankle tapes or... there is a thing made of cloth in Manipur which has studs at the bottom and cloth on top. It cost 120 rupees, so I didn't wear it often. I got my first ever boot, a second hand one, for 100 rupees," Jacki says with an easy smile.

Jacki soon was selected to the Army Boys academy. Out of over 500 players attending the U-14 camp, he was one among a dozen or so to make the cut. Many, he says, never even got a chance to try out. He remembers crying through the way, missing his family, to his new home in Shillong.

After impressing at the age groups, the winger was scouted by Wahingdoh playing in Shillong's third division in the late 2000s. He played for them the following season in 2009 in the second division while still with the army before taking a leap of faith and sacrificing job stability for the unknown.

"Royal owner, Dominic, told me since I had the quality I could go professional. It was a risk because I came thinking I have to be in the Army because of my family condition. So that job was very important to help my family and that was the reason I came to Shillong. But at the same time, I was not afraid to bet on myself. My life changed after that," he says, in his voice betraying a tinge of disbelief even after so many years.

Back-to-back promotions, dominant run at the national league, call-up for the national team and widespread recognition all followed. On the personal front too, everything changed.

"My wife was my neighbour. We were in a relationship. We got married in 2011. My family was very poor and hers was a bit better. When I spoke about getting married, her parents denied it at first," he says candidly. "I hadn't thought I'd be here when we started dating. She definitely didn't either," he adds.

Now, after regaining national team call-up and tasting his first major silverware - winning the Indian Super Cup with FC Goa - last season, it's time to look for the big one. Last season he came within a whisker of winning the Indian Super League, playing a leading role. A 117th minute winner for Bengaluru FC by Rahul Bheke put paid to title aspirations.

"We had to play 120 minutes and we lost to a goal in 117th minute. Now we have to work for another year because we missed out by three minutes there. We have to do it. For sure, we will try," he admits.

So far, with an unbeaten record and scintillating football, he is definitely on track.

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