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Interview with Jobby Justin: The Kerala Striker Who Has Made East Bengal His Home

Rohith Nair
FEATURED COLUMNIST
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Timeless

East Bengal
East Bengal's Jobby Justin (R) scored in the Kolkata Derby as they won 3-2 [Image: I-League]

The Kolkata Derby between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan in the I-League saw a new hero emerge when Jobby Justin scored an acrobatic scissor-kick to give the Red & Gold team a 2-1 lead. Down 1-0, the goal turned things around just at the stroke of half-time.

"That goal I scored is one I will always remember," Justin says. "It was an amazing experience and I couldn't be happier!"

It sent the East Bengal half of the stadium, half of the city of Kolkata, into delirium. They hadn't tasted victory in seven derbies before this game and the three points gave Alejandro Menendez's side a foothold in the I-League title race.

ALSO READ: Kolkata Derby - Hits and Flops

The struggles of growing up without support

The 25-year-old has come a long way to play for East Bengal. Hailing from the beaches of Vettucaud in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, it was East Bengal that gave him his first professional contract.

"My house is right next to the beach in Vettucaud. That's where I played with some of the other players who were my seniors such as Thomas, Jose, Ignatius... They all stayed close by.

"That's where I spent my childhood before I attended football camps. That's where I learned the game."

Although he learned the game on the beach, playing football as a career wasn't something his father envisioned for him when he was growing up.

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"My father was a fisherman and he didn't give me much support at first," Justin says. "When I was in school he worked in the Gulf. So when he was in the Gulf I would play. When he was back home, I didn't play much."

It is a tale that is not uncommon for any Indian kid growing up. Jobby is one of three siblings. His elder brother is married while his younger brother is currently studying to be an engineer. 

But Jobby found a way and it was his mother who encouraged him to follow his dreams. 

"When I was selected for the nationals in school, I wouldn't tell them at home that I was going for practice in the morning. Even at the University level, I didn't get much support. But my mother supported me a lot."

Kerala is a state where Sevens Football (7-a-side teams) is quite popular. And that is where Justin started out.

"I used to play Sevens Football - that's where you really start out." It's what helped shape him into the footballer he is today.

"When you play Sevens, you need to be tough and aggressive," he explains. "There's a big difference between Sevens and 'Elevens'. Sevens has its advantages and disadvantages."

Justin's former teams include Kerala University and Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB). Although he plays as a forward now, he used to play as a wing-back too.

"I played as a striker with KSEB but I was a wing-back at the University level," he recalls. "For the juniors, state level, and U-19s I played as a wing-back."

The move to East Bengal

So how did the move to Kolkata come about? How did a Kerala lad suddenly find himself in the cauldron that is the Salt Lake Stadium scoring in India's biggest derby?

"There was this tournament back in Kerala - the Kerala Premier League. When I was playing there a scout from East Bengal had come down.

"A senior player had told me that they were scouting for talent and that they had asked about me. Every player's dream is to play professional football and you don't get such chances too often."

Jobby Justin acknowledges the East Bengal fans [Image: I-League]
Jobby Justin acknowledges the East Bengal fans [Image: I-League]

To give Justin some advice on the next step of his career was none other than India's legendary striker IM Vijayan, who had captained India and played for both Mohun Bagan and East Bengal.

"During the final, Vijayan sir was there when I was offered the contract," Justin says. "He gave me a lot of advice.

"He said: 'Playing in Kolkata is a different feeling altogether. If you want to make a name for yourself, you have to go to Kolkata. Such big offers won't always come so you need to think properly and come to a decision.'"

Soon, with the help of his agency Inventive Sports, Justin packed his bags and moved to Kolkata to kickstart his career as a professional footballer. But it wasn't an easy start as he found playing time hard to come by under former coach Khalid Jamil.

"Last year when I joined I got very few chances. It was my first year at the club so there was quite a lot to learn before I was ready.

"But I did get my chances eventually. Four of my appearances were in the starting lineup and I scored two goals [in the I-League]. Otherwise, I would get a chance to come on in the second half."

Justin would also get a few minutes in the Super Cup final but by then the game was already won by Bengaluru FC.

Khalid Jamil lasted just one season and with new owners Quess taking over, they meant business. They roped in Spanish manager Alejandro Menendez and it was Justin who benefited from the appointment.

"Both coaches are quite different. Last season I didn't get many chances but this season I've got chances because I was able to have a pre-season with the club. That's when I got chances to prove myself.

"[Menendez] always gives players a chance. It doesn't matter whether you're a junior player or a senior player; if he sees that a player can adapt to his style then he will give them a chance.

So what is it that Menendez does differently?

"There's a difference in the way he manages players," Justin explains. "He gives instructions to each player about their role and specific duties. And if we perform well in our respective roles individually then the team will play well as a collective."

Jobby Justin has benefited from Alejandro Menendez
Jobby Justin has benefited from Alejandro Menendez's coaching [Image: I-League]

"So whatever he has told me I've executed well which is why I'm getting more chances to play now."

ALSO READ: What Menendez said after the Kolkata Derby

Quess have also done well to make the players comfortable. And Justin says they have gone above and beyond to ensure the players get what they need.

"With Quess managing the team there is nothing that we feel is inadequate," he says. "Sometimes it even feels like they do too much for us. They provide us with accommodation, food, good training facilities... It's all good with them. There is nothing lacking with them in charge."

Justin has started the season quite well. With seven games under his belt, he already has five goals - the highest among the Indian goalscorers in the I-League. Only Churchill Brothers' Trinidadian striker Willis Plaza has scored more goals (7).

But ask him about his chances of winning the Golden Boot and he brushes it aside.

"Everyone is talking about it but I'm not really looking at that right now. The goal is to score and win games, that's it."

But does he have a specific target in mind? 10 goals? 15 goals, perhaps?

"I'm not keeping any target in mind because if I do that then I might become selfish on the pitch," he says with a laugh.

A star is born in the Kolkata Derby

From playing in front of moderate crowds in Kerala to playing in front of 65,000 in Kolkata, what was that feeling like?

"Oh, it was super," he says with a smile. "I've played in the derby before but this game was just super. We were losing 1-0 and then to score twice...

"The fans also played their part in motivating us. It had been three years since East Bengal had won the derby. Some were even crying and telling us that we had to win at any cost.

"I was in the team last year and we couldn't win the derby. And the derby is always special for any footballer. Everyone notices you when you play in a derby."

Jobby Justin
Jobby Justin's goal gave East Bengal the lead in the Kolkata Derby [Image: I-League]

Justin's 44th-minute strike gave East Bengal the lead but he could have grabbed a brace had he kept his composure in the 86th-minute. Mohun Bagan had stolen a goal back to make it 3-2 to set up a nervy end to the match when Justin found himself one-on-one with goalkeeper Sankar Roy.

The goal would have put the game out of reach but Justin's shot was straight at the keeper and Roy made the save.

"That was my mistake," he says sheepishly. "If I had chipped the ball over him I would have probably scored."

ALSO READ: 3 Reasons Why East Bengal Beat Mohun Bagan

The win not only gave East Bengal bragging rights in the city of Kolkata, but it also gives them a realistic shot at getting back into the title race. The win saw them move up to fifth in the table. They're six points off the summit but they do have a game in hand.

East Bengal have moved up to fifth in the I-League with a game in hand
East Bengal have moved up to fifth in the I-League with a game in hand

"Now we do have a chance," Justin opines. "We're playing to win the title. And winning the derby was crucial for that."

The old Kolkata heavyweights have been upstaged in the past few seasons by up-and-coming clubs in the I-League. Aizawl and Minerva Punjab won the last two league titles while, this season, Chennai City and Real Kashmir have proved their credentials.

But Justin isn't surprised by their sudden rise. Chennai City are top of the table while Real Kashmir, who were promoted to the I-League this season, are second.

"We weren't really surprised," he says. "When we started this season we saw that all teams were not easy to play and they were playing well.

"We've made mistakes and that's how we've lost three games. But now that we've got a chance to get back in the title race we can't let it go."

What next for Justin?

With five goals in the I-League so far, many have wondered why he hasn't received an Indian team call-up yet.

While many debate national team coach Stephen Constantine's selection policies, the fact remains that Justin has scored the same number of goals in the I-League as Sunil Chhetri in the Indian Super League despite having played four fewer matches.

Many fans have voiced their displeasure with Constantine and demanded "justice" for players who didn't make the cut. And Justin is one of those names.

"Until now I haven't received a national team call-up but I'm waiting for one," Justin says with hope.

"If I get one I know I can prove myself and show that I belong there. If the coach likes what I have to offer then I can play for India."

ALSO READ: No Bheke in India squad for Asian Cup

His performances will certainly have turned a few heads. And with many ISL teams struggling to find the right striker to lead the line, Justin's name may come up.

But he has no plans of leaving East Bengal just yet.

"Now is not the time to move to the ISL," he says. "I've only played a few games so far. And I'll only think about the future at the end of the season.

"But my first priority is East Bengal. It was East Bengal that saw me, signed me, and trained me. That's why I've made East Bengal my home!"

With inputs from Aravind Suchindran

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