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Young Jerry makes an impression

Odisha FC’s gifted youngster Jerry Mawihmingthanga is having a breakout season in the Indian Super League

Jerry Mawihmingthanga (left) celebrating after scoring a goal against Chennaiyin FC in December.
Jerry Mawihmingthanga (left) celebrating after scoring a goal against Chennaiyin FC in December. (Photo courtesy: ISL)

When Jerry Mawihmingthanga was 16, he went for a trial held by the DSK Shivajians-Liverpool academy in Mizoram in the 2014-15 season. The coaches there noticed his potential and decided to watch him play for Chanmari FC against Chanmari West in the Mizoram Premier League (MPL) a few days later. Jerry came off the bench in that game. In a grainy video, he rides a couple of challenges expertly and chips the goalkeeper for a delightful goal. DSK’s coach Dave Rogers was in the stands and remembers turning to his assistant and saying: “That’s it. He has what it takes. He just needs the right environment. We are signing him."

Even though he’s just 22, Jerry since has had many moments that make one think he will make it big time. Quite apart from the standout matches in which he has scored—including the fastest goal in Indian Super League history (22.8 seconds, for Jamshedpur FC against Kerala Blasters in ISL 4 )—Jerry’s sheer pursuit of a football career was typified by his performance for the now defunct DSK Shivajians in a Federation Cup 2017 match against Bengaluru FC, and more specifically, against Sunil Chhetri.

Jerry Mawihmingthanga
Jerry Mawihmingthanga (Photo courtesy: ISL)

Jerry, then 20, was asked by Dave Rogers to mark Chhetri out of the game. “If Sunil goes to the toilet, you mark him there too. Even wash his hands for him," were the instructions, as Rogers once told me.

It is fair to say that the way Jerry hounded Chhetri in that game is characteristic of his quest to keep getting better. Chhetri had to change his position thrice to find space, but Jerry just didn’t let him play. The match ended in a remarkable 2-0 win for DSK, at a time when their players had gone unpaid for months.

That afternoon, the players’ motivation to win was put to the test, and Jerry was exemplary.

“You could tell Jerry where you want him to play and he will do a decent job across the pitch, he is that clever. Which is why, against Sunil, he was so driven. He was like that every day in training as well. Tenacious, focused and hungry. I remember him knocking on my door every evening asking for extra drills and anything that can make him the best he can be," says Rogers, who holds a Uefa Pro Licence, and is in charge of Arizona FC in the US.

But Jerry was probably motivated much before Rogers brought out the best in him. “You know they used to make you write those essays in school, and one of the topics would be ‘what is your aim in life’? I always wrote about how I wanted to be a footballer. My Plan B was to join the army, but I always knew I would make it in football," he says. Jerry has started 14 of the 15 matches played by Odisha FC in the ongoing ISL 6.

He has already gathered two goals and four assists, has the most goal contributions among all Under-23 players in the ISL, and has created 18 chances for his team—second only to Spanish teammate Xisco Hernández, who has created 20.

This could very well be the year when he has his breakthrough season.

Odisha decided to sign him as a replacement for Lallianzuala Chhangte, who joined Chennaiyin FC. Lallianzuala and Jerry were together at DSK from 2015-17 and also went to Liverpool for a week’s training. While they play on opposite flanks, they are scripting a brilliant success story—while forging different identities as players—for different clubs.

“Zuala and Jerry are similar in some ways but different players—one is left footed, and one is right. Maybe Jerry’s tactical understanding of football is better but Zuala has more ability in a one-on-one situation," says Josep Gombau, the current Odisha manager, who has coached both players.

The statistics mirror Gombau’s opinion: Lallianzuala has completed more than double the number of dribbles (16 to Jerry’s 7) this season compared to Jerry, but Jerry has 42 defensive actions (interceptions and tackles) to Lallianzuala’s 41. While these numbers are dictated by in-game situations, their team roles and playing styles, it is fair to say that they have both justified the faith of their managers in unique ways.

“With and without the ball, he’s doing a lot of good things. His positioning, his ability to get in behind the defensive line, his work at tracking back to help the defenders—these are all good things. His mentality is very good, you never see him not concentrating, he’s very humble, and these are some of the reasons you see him playing every week. But what I don’t want is for him to ever think that his job is done because at 22, he has a very long career ahead of him," Gombau says of Jerry.

While he’s a fine player in the making, an athlete’s personality goes a long way in shaping their future. And it is great credit to Jerry’s upbringing that he makes an impression, not just as a footballer, but even as a person: “When we took him to Liverpool, he was living with my family for a while, taking in the culture of the city and helping us babysit my youngest son," says Rogers. “My family took to him immediately and those few days are a standout example of Jerry—well mannered, and adapting."

Gombau says Jerry still needs to add more dimensions to his game—especially with his back to goal and decision making in big moments. But there have been more good moments than bad ones. “You get confidence when the team puts trust in you—especially to express yourself as a player. Automatically, you start enjoying what you do," says Jerry, fondly known as “Young Jerry" in the football world.

“I am actually older than the other Jerry (Jerry Lalrinzuala—who plays for Chennaiyin) so I am surprised why I am still called Young Jerry. Maybe because I have a younger-looking face."

Jerry Lalrinzuala and Lallianzuala have both represented India—but Odisha’s Jerry is still waiting for his first call-up to a national team camp. He has worked patiently in the meantime, not peaking too soon, not buckling under pressure, but waiting for his chances and getting better as a player every day. Most importantly, he has managed to keep the hype alive. And he’s living up to it as well.

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.

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