Asian Football Interviews

Never Giving Up, The Fisherman Turned Footballer: An exclusive with Chennai City’s Jockson Dhas

Once again, I hope my Tamil Language teachers are proud of me. I did this interview entirely in Tamil.

After interviewing Sriram, my curiosity in Tamil Nadu and I-league football piqued. In my quest to expand my coverage of Asian football, I decided to interview another Indian footballer. This is the story of Jockson Dhas, a tenacious midfielder for Chennai City FC. Jockson made his debut this 2019/2020 season and featured prominently for the club, making 14 appearances and racking up 3 assists. He is a tenacious midfielder who also played as a striker before joining Chennai. He has settled in well, but it’s his journey to reaching this point that really stood out for me.

Photo provided by Jockson Dhas

Beginnings: Growing up in a Football Crazy Environment

Born in Vallavilai, Tamil Nadu, it comes as no surprise that Jockson ended up choosing to pursue a career in football. Unlike most places in India, where cricket is the most popular sport, most people in Vallavilai are football crazy.

“In my village, most people are Christians. Just like the church holding significance to our faith, the football grounds hold significance to our identity. People purely play football in my area, and we start kicking about really young. We have big football tournaments yearly and literally, everyone comes down to spectate the fixtures. So, I grew up in such an environment where football was highly regarded and footballers were very respected by my community.”

Jockson started his footballing journey properly when he was in the 8th standard playing for his school team. However, his interest in playing football started much earlier. When he was much younger, one of the footballers in his village who played in the local tournament, Viju, took him under his wing. For two weeks, he taught Jockson the basics of football, and that ignited his passion for the game.

Growing up, Jockson preferred playing 7-a-side matches, and that preference continued from the time he was kicking about to the moment he entered college. In his home town, 7-a-side tournaments were a common fixture, and there were even 7-a-side festivals taking place. In fact, Jockson reveals that 7-a-side matches are popular in other parts of Tamil Nadu, like Karaikudi and Chennai. The midfielder believes playing regularly in 7-a-side fixtures provided him with the foundation he needed. He also headed down to Karaikudi and Chennai for tournaments, a nerve-wracking experience for any young player.

Besides their shared love of football, most people from Vallavilai also work as fishermen. It is of little surprise since Vallavilai is a coastal town. Jockson’s parents were fishermen as well, but to my astonishment, they never fully supported his aspirations of becoming a footballer.

“I remember coming back home, bruised up after kicking about with my friends and my parents used to always scold me and tell me to focus on my studies instead. They always told me that I would not get anything out of football.”

Yet, that didn’t stop Jockson from pursuing his dreams of playing football professionally one day. However, he faced an uphill task in furthering his football development. Jockson had no formal training and couldn’t obtain a sports scholarship. He secured a spot at KCG College of Technology in Chennai, but after spending 3 to 4 months at the college, he discontinued his degree and returned home. While KCG offered him a good education, it didn’t provide him with the high level of football development that he had desired. Since his ultimate goal was playing football professionally, it made little sense for him to spend his time at the school.

Photo provided by Jockson Dhas (@jackz_saha)

Upon reaching home, his parents were distraught. They told him to give up his footballing dreams and focus on getting a proper education. Jockson did feel bad because he understood how hard his parents had worked for him to gain an opportunity to go to college. They believed that Jockson was wasting his potential away by focusing on football.

Leaving Football, Becoming a Fisherman and Returning to the Beautiful Game

Jockson gave up his footballing dreams and decided to follow in his parent’s footsteps and become a fisherman for a while. For 6 months, he worked the seas daily, toiling hard in a fishing vessel. For 6 months, he didn’t play football. Instead, he focused on his job. Yet, as much as he tried to, he couldn’t suppress his desire to continue his footballing progress and play professionally one day. One day, he had enough, and he quit his job as a fisherman. He got into a massive argument with his parents over pursuing football again, but he deiced that he had to try one more time. He left home with one mission in mind – to become a footballer.

This time, with the help of a mentor figure, Vinoth, Jockson gained entrance in St. Joseph’s College in Trichy, Tamil Nadu. It was a difficult period for Jockson, who was pretty much on his own. After fighting with his parents, he wanted to prove that he can make his dreams into reality, and after working incredibly hard, he was appointed as the captain of the college team in his third year. It was during his time at St. Joseph that Jockson learned the most and he had Edwin Prem, the physical director, to thank for that. He had to cover the tution fees himself after falling out with his parents, but Edwin stepped up to help him.

“[Prem] told me that I’d only have to pay half of the fees initially and if I did well enough, I would be given a full scholarship. However, if I did not perform well enough, I’d have to pay the full fees. He told me that I had no certificates showing that I had formal training.”

Jockson had been a consistent performer while playing for the St. Joseph team. Through his hard work, he managed to earn a scholarship in his first year, where he scored 3 goals and 2 assists in 4 matches for an important competition. His displays caught the attention of many who followed Tamil Nadu football.

“After everything I’ve been through, from my family situation to me leaving football and working as a fisherman, I told myself if there’s even a small chance offered to me to further my game, I shall seize it and not let it go. I’ve been through a lot already for football and I can’t give up.

“Besides the physical director, I also have to thank the assistant physical director Renil and college coach Inbamani for always taking an interest in me and guiding me. They are responsible for helping me progress as much as I did in college. Each of them helped me in different ways. Coach Inbamani really upped my game through training. Prem always criticized my flaws so that I work on them and become a more polished player. Even when I scored a goal or if I felt like I played well, [Prem] would tell me that I could have played better. Back then, I used to be very angry with him but looking back now, I realized what he did helped me become significantly better. Had he not criticized me, I would surely have stagnated at that level.”

The same year he became captain of the St. Joseph’s team, he attended trials for the Tamil Nadu state team that was going to compete in the Santosh Trophy in 2017. The Santosh Trophy is a regional tournament comprising state association and government institution teams. Jockson impressed during the trials and was duly selected for the competition. Jockson felt a real sense of honour playing for the Tamil Nadu football team and even scored a goal to cap off a memorable experience. His performances earned him an offer from AGS, a government team.

“Unlike the EPL, where you have a system where you start young and work your way up the academy, there was no such thing in Tamil Nadu. You had the Tata Academy in India, but there was really nothing like that in Tamil Nadu. It was only after the formation of Chennaiyin FC for the Indian Super League and the inclusion of Chennai City FC in the I-league that you had proper youth development programmes laid out.”

Up till that point, representing the Tamil Nadu football team in the Santosh Trophy was the pinnacle for most Tamil Nadu footballers. Jockson however, wanted to transcend the Santosh trophy and become a full professional player. He was supposed to turn professional much earlier but he was advised against it.

“People advised me to take up a government team job first so that I still have a job in the event I couldn’t make it as a professional footballer. I felt that made sense to me which was why I decided to wait and take up the AGS job first.”

It was during this time that Jockson’s parents started to really support his career. A lot of people in his hometown kept on singing praises about Jockson and him gaining a government job really pleased his parents, who quite honestly only wanted him to do much better than them.

Starting his professional career

After a year with AGS, Jockson decided that it was time for his professional calling. His friends, Anthony Xavier, Joffin, Johnpal and Raegan kept on encouraging him to seriously pursue his dreams and try out for Chennai City. In particular, Raegan played the biggest role in influencing Jockson to pursue a professional career.

Raegan Albarnas was a teammate and colleague of Jockson’s at AGS but before playing for the government team, Raegan was playing for Chennai City FC in 2017. Seeing Jockson play, Raegan knew that the midfielder had what it took to become a prominent fixture in Chennai. Raegan’s continuous advice spurred Jockson on and he still continues to motivate Jockson till this day.

“I really learned a lot from Raegan who represented India at the youth level. He always motivated me to pursue a professional career and I’ve learnt so much from him. He always saw potential in me and always gave me advice on how I could further my game. I’ll always be thankful to Raegan because he was the one who helped me the most in securing my move to Chennai. Hearing him, a former professional player, tell me that I had what it took just made me work harder and harder. Even today, he still helps me out by looking out for me.”

AGS were managed by Vijaykumar, who signed Jockson after his incredible displays during the Santosh Trophy, and he gave assurances to Jockson that he’ll play if he signed with the team. However, Vijaykumar didn’t stand in the way when Jockson wanted to go for his trials with Chennai. Jockson managed to obtain permission from AGS to trial with Chennai City FC. Unsurprisingly, he got selected to play for Chennai

Another important reason why Jockson decided to go for the trials was because of former India international Sanjeev Maria. Jockson and Sanjeev played together when they represented the CAG Delhi team which comprised the best players of the various state’s AGS teams. In fact, after seeing Jockson play, Sanjeev tried to help the midfielder get moves to other I-league clubs. He has done a lot for the midfielder but in return, he only asks that he works hard and plays for India one day just like him.

Photo Credits: Shantanu Krishnan

“Everything is really different playing professionally. I didn’t realize that I had so much more to learn whether be it tactics or adapting to a more physical style of play. I felt like I only learnt 1% of what I need to know about football, and I still had 99% more to learn.”

Jockson also believes that he will probably benefit learning even more under the tutelage of Chennai City head coach Akbar Nawas. Akbar arrived in Chennai with a lot of promise, but no one expected him to guide the club to their first-ever I-league title in his first season in charge. Besides that accomplishment, Jockson is in awe of Akbar’s coaching style.

“I really believe the coach is integral to the team. For him [Coach Akbar] to come in and win the title in his first year, is really a special thing. To work with someone like him, it made me so happy, and I really learned a lot from him. Coach Akbar is really a friendly, down to earth, and approachable figure. He also goes out of the way to help us individually. To help us avoid repeating certain mistakes, he’d work with us individually and walk us through things.”

The 2019-2020 I-League season will forever be a season to remember for Jockson, as it marked the start of his professional career. And what a start he’s had. In his debut season, he appeared in 14 out of the 15 matches that Chennai City FC has played. He’s also racked up a commendable 3 assists in those 14 appearances. He could have added more assists and possibly notched in a goal. Unfortunately, the ongoing pandemic has forced the I-League to come to a premature conclusion, with Mohun Bagan declared as the I-League champions.

This year, Jockson also managed to make his debut for the AFC Champions League, and despite only playing the last 9 minutes or so, he relished the experience of playing in a premier continental competition. It was a total surprise for Jockson, who had been sidelined with an injury previously and was in the final stages of recovery. Despite the short cameo, it was a magical experience for the midfielder.

“I never expected to get a chance to play. It will forever be an unforgettable experience for me personally. To represent a team not just from Tamil Nadu but India and play in the AFC Champions League, was really such a privilege. It was a totally different experience from playing the I-League, which I would say is more physical. So adapting to an opponent who plays in a different style really taught me a lot.”

However, despite coming on the last 9 minutes, Jockson couldn’t make enough of a difference as Chennai City narrowly lost 1-0 in their AFC Champions League Preliminary Round encounter. That loss meant that Chennai was going to play in the 2020 AFC Cup instead. Jockson and Chennai started off well with a 2-2 draw with Maldivian titans Maziya, but the Coronavirus pandemic temporarily suspended the competition. The current edition of the AFC Cup is slated to resume sometime in October. Chennai City will play their remaining 5 matches in the Maldives after the AFC decided that the remaining games will take place in centralized venues in the 5 zones.

The Future

Picture Credits: Chennai City Football Club (@chennaivityfootballclub)

Hearing Jockson’s story, I can’t help but feel in awe. He had to overcome many obstacles to reach the point he is at right now. His journey as a footballer is inspiring because it reminds us how achieving what we want is never a smooth sailing journey. Jockson had some external help, and his family were unsupportive of his career at first, but despite the odds stacked against him, he continued to believe in himself. It’s this belief that still drives him today.

Today, however, he has the support of many people.

“Throughout my footballing journey so far, I had made a lot of friends who have supported me. Even today, when I play matches I have so many people, even from my hometown, who will catch the live fixtures. They’d message me to score a goal so that they all can celebrate it. I feel like I’ve come a long way with such support since turning professional and I am thankful to everyone who has helped me get to where I am right now. I will continue to work hard and become an even better footballer.”

Still only 25, he has a long future ahead of him. For the immediate future, Jockson wants to help Chennai City get better. However, he also has long term aspirations of playing in the Indian Super League and one day playing for the Indian National Team. These goals are achievable if Jockson continues to put in the hard required of him. With the pandemic forcing India into periodic shutdowns, the next time we would see Jockson play would probably be during the AFC Cup in October. If you do happen to catch Chennai City, look out for Number 20. Jockson won’t disappoint.

Featured Image Credits: Chennai City FC

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