With 27 points in 10 games, FC Pune City are riding high in the Hero Elite League 2018-19, the rebranded version of the U-18 Youth League.
The top two teams from each zone make the next round but Pune have dominated the Maharashtra Zone, having built a comfortable lead of seven points over second-placed Reliance Foundation Young Champs. No other team in the zone can match their goal difference of 24. Reliance are a far second even in this criterion with a goal difference of 9.
The key behind Pune's success in the Elite League are their attackers Ishan Dey and Johnson Joseph Mathews. The two account for 11 of Pune's 29 goals in the group stage and have ensured that Pune finished the stage as the leaders after going down 1-2 to Iron Born SC in their first fixture. Apart from the five goals he scored in six appearances, Johnson has provided four assists for FC Pune City.
"It’s just the collective effort where everyone does their bit and makes the job easier," the 17-year-old Johnson said. "Credits go to the staff and management who have helped us stick as one unit and overcome every obstacle to come a long way here."
"Pune have qualified for the next leg of the Y-League. Our campaign will kick off on January 27, 2019, against Sudeva FC. FC Pune City are a great club and everything has been done professionally."
"The focus is to continue the winning momentum by taking it one game at a time. We continue to work hard with our feet on the ground."
After spending time on the bench for Pune's first two games, Johnson struck one against Reliance in their 3-1 win, a brace against Thane - Football School of India during that 6-0 thrashing and another against India Rush Soccer Club in a 4-0 victory for the Young Stallions.
He picked up two bookings in the game against Iron Born, which saw him miss the Mumbai City fixture due to a suspension. Ishan shouldered maximum responsibility in his absence but Johnson returned to score in Pune's final group game against Reliance.
In the same season, Johnson had accounted for 10 goals for Thakur College and picked the golden boot award too in the RYFS Cup, organised by Reliance.
"As a striker, it’s always good to find the back of the net. I’m glad I could (help out the team). I hope to double those numbers in the future. My aim is to stay grounded, learn as much as I can and do my job well," Johnson said.
Starting off by playing on the streets of Mumbai, Johnson impressed in the MSSA and DSO competitions for his school St Francis D’Assisi. It was his sister, also a footballer, who encouraged him to take up the sport seriously. He represented Mumbai FC and PIFA in the U-15 Y-League and U-18 Y-League in the last couple of years before securing the opportunity to hone his skills at the FC Pune City youth setup.
"I started playing football at a very young age and have always had a passion for it. I was so driven that I couldn’t imagine myself not playing this beautiful game," Johnson said.
"What I’m today is because of my family. My sister has been my inspiration right from day one and the reason why I’m introduced to this game. She is very passionate about the game and has represented her school and college across various levels.
"In 5 years, I not just want to be an established player but also continue to be a good human being. Time will tell, but I am confident that it isn’t impossible to get there.
"I want to continue doing my job well, make everyone proud and go on to represent the nation someday."
Johnson's big moment came when he scored a sensational goal against EHIS while representing Thakur College in the RYFS Cup. Johnson stole possession at the edge of the box, moved left for space and unleashed a left-footer into the top-left corner. The goal surprised even his coach and Johnson is now continuing that work with FC Pune City.
"As a striker, it’s always nice to score some goals that you’d remember for a long time. I was happy to have scored that one and more importantly win the game and qualify for the next round," Johnson said.
"I’ve scored quite some goals like that across several tournaments. I was confident and scoring a goal like that was no surprise for me.
"At the start of this season, there was interest from other clubs but I, along with my mentors, decided that FCPC would be the best choice for development as I could be close to home and simultaneously focus on my studies.
"So far, all has come good. I am pleased with the decisions made. Also, I’m glad to have not just found a representation agency in Inventive Sports but a family that guides me and helps me make the right decisions throughout my life."
Johnson now looks forward to the next round of the Elite League, where he and Ishan hope to startle oppositions with their great link-up play.