ISL 2018-19: Interview with NorthEast United's Puitea - 'Eelco Schattorie the best coach I've ever had'
Northeast United are on the cusp of creating history by making the playoffs of the Indian Super League (ISL) for the first time ever. This season, Northeast United have had wholesale changes to the squad, and a lot of young Indian talents are in the forefront of the team.
Players like Redeem Tlang, Nikhil Kadam, and Puitea (Khawlhring Lalthathanga) have been real game changers for Northeast United FC this season, and the coach, Eelco Schattorie, has put a lot of faith in his young Indian brigade.
Sportskeeda caught up with Khawlhring Lalthathanga (Puitea) for an exclusive chat.
Why are you called Puitea?
(Laughs) Well, my name Khawlhring Lalthathanga was given by my grandfather. But, my mother used to called me Puitea and since then, everyone started calling me Puitea.
When did you start playing football?
As a kid, I used to play in the streets and then in the tennis courts and all. But, it was from Class 5 when I started getting serious about football.
How did Football as a career happen for you?
I played for Bethlehem Vengthlang in Mizoram Premier League, and it was an excellent experience for me. Then, I went to the DSK-Liverpool Academy in Pune, and there, they promoted me to the senior team, where I played in the I-League for DSK Shivajains. So it was playing the MPL and then going to DSK that made me become a professional footballer.
You won the best midfielder award while playing for Bethlehem Vengthlang in 2015. How was your experience for playing for your local team?
I am from Bethlehem, and it was good to be able to play for my local team Bethlehem Vengthlang and getting the award for the best midfielder in 2015 was a perfect moment for me.
What are your views on the Mizoram Premier League?
The games in the MPL are intense and end-to-end stuff. We have some outstanding players in the league. I also feel it is the best-organised state level league in India. I think the MPL should be improved more to help Mizo players come into the limelight.
How did the DSK Academy help you in becoming a better player?
A lot! I learned many new things from my coach Dave Rogers in the DSK academy. He also taught a lot of stuff off the field. I learned what to eat, what not to eat and when to eat. I understood that eating rice every day is not good for a footballer (Laughs). He also taught me what time to sleep, how many hours of sleep will help me give my best and when to enjoy my free time. So it helped me become a better player.
How did the move to Northeast United FC happen?
After my DSK days, I was approached by NEUFC last season. But then, I went to Aizawl on loan, and it was beneficial for me to play another season in the I-League. Then this season when NEUFC asked me to join them again, I was pleased and joined them.
How helpful is having someone like Robert Lalthlamuana, who is from Mizoram, for you?
Very! I was a fan of Robert when I was a kid, and he used to play in the I-League for East Bengal. When at first I got the offer of NEUFC, I texted Robert and asked him for advice. He suggested that I should join the side and I did.
Coach Eelco Schattorie has praised you a lot during his press conferences. How influential has Eelco been for you?
Eelco is probably the best coach I have ever had in my career. He has helped me a lot on and off the pitch. He always teaches me how a Central Midfielder should play. He tells me the little on how to turn, where to run and make space for creating chances. He also motivates me a lot and I am thankful for having a coach like him.
How helpful have players like Bartholomew Ogbeche and Federico Gallego been for you?
Great! I have never seen players like them before in my playing career. I learn a lot from Ogbeche. When I got my first start, Ogbeche came to me and said: "This is your first start, but it won't be your last, so don't have any fear and play well." When the captain comes and gives you such confidence, it helps a player do well.
Gallego is also very helpful. He always tells me how to play and he's an excellent friend off the pitch. We have a lot of fun after the games too. Both of them are winners, they have a winning mentality and always want to win the matches for the team.
That 2-1 victory against Kerala Blasters when NEUFC got two goals in 4 minutes to seal the win. What was going through your mind during those six minutes of added time?
(Smiles) I felt like, you know, we cannot lose again at home and need to win it. We kept pushing each other, and everyone wanted to win it, and in the end, we did it. I feel we were also a bit lucky that day (Laughs).
After the win how was the mood in the dressing room?
It was fantastic, you know. It gave us the moral belief that this season, we can do something special. But, at that moment, all of us were happy and enjoyed the moment.
Going to back to the topic of Mizoram, how much of Infrastructure development has happened in your hometown?
A lot! We now have a proper ground and the facilities have improved. In Mizoram as a whole, the development of Infrastructure has been excellent. We have many new fields and a new Indoor Stadium. So it is developing.
What are your views regarding the local clubs from Mizoram, other than Aizawl FC?
See, only playing the Mizoram Premier League won't help the club and players develop. They should think of playing the I-League 2nd division. Chanmari FC played the 2nd division a few years back. Now, I hear that Chinga Venga might play the 2nd division.
Another issue for the clubs of Mizoram is that some lack the resources (shows the money symbol with his fingers and Laughs).
So which has been your best performance this season in the ISL?
I would say the Mumbai City game. It was my first start of the season, and I think I played well. Even though we lost the game, I felt I played well.
You have played as a central midfielder and also as a winger. How difficult is it for someone to adjust to these different positions?
Not much for me because I played as a left wing back also during my DSK days and even as an Attacking midfielder and Defensive midfielder there.
The main difference while playing as a Central midfielder and Winger is the way you have to sprint in the wings. As a midfielder, you are not required to accelerate at much speed. But in the wings, you have to run really fast. That is the only difference for me.
What are your hopes with Northeast United FC this season? NEUFC have the chance of making the playoffs for the first time...
I am not thinking about the playoffs and all. At this moment, I am thinking about tonight and tomorrow's practice session. Then, I will think about the game against Bengaluru FC. We are not thinking of the future and taking it one game at a time.
But, sometimes I do think about playoffs. But then, I concentrate on the next match (smiles).
Yes, we are in a good position. And all of us will try our best to create history for Northeast United FC.
What are your thoughts on Bengaluru FC, your next opponents?
They are the only unbeaten side in the ISL this season. We have to give more than 100 per cent to win the game, and we will provide that on the pitch.
What does the future hold for Khawlhring Lalthathanga?
Well, it is every footballer's dream to play for the national team, and I also want to play for India. In the meantime, all I can do is keep working hard and play well for Northeast United FC.
How different is the level of football in ISL compared to the I-League?
As you know, most of the star players are playing in ISL. The I-League also has excellent players, but the superstars are all playing in the ISL. Plus, there is also a big difference off the pitch in the ISL.
Rapid fire questions:
The Funniest guy in the NEUFC dressing room? - Gurwinder Paji
The most serious guy? - Ogbeche
Favourite Mizo footballer other than Mama (Malsawmtluanga Shylo)? - Lalrindika Ralte
Favourite Footballer? - Messi
A midfielder you look upto? - David Silva
Favourite club? - Real Madrid
Favourite Food? - Any Dish that has pork in it
Favourite Musician? - Don't have any favourites. Any music that is cool and soft.