Date: January 28, 2018.
Location: EMS Stadium, Kozhikode.
Scenario: It was the 90th minute of the I-League match between Gokulam Kerala and Shillong Lajong and the scores were tied 2-2. Desperate for a win at home, Gokulam Kerala piled the pressure on their opponents after trailing 0-1 at the break.
Mid-season recruit Mudde Musa spotted his teammate surging forward on a lung-busting run from his own box and gladly played a through-ball into his path. The crowd fixated on 22-year-old Malappuram-born midfielder Arjun Jayaraj as he raced forward with the ball.
The defenders were caught on their feet as the youngster entered the opponent's box, switched the ball onto his right foot and slotted home a sensational match-winner to send Kozhikode into delirium.
"What can I say? (laughs) I believe I played well this season!" exclaimed Arjun Jayaraj as he sat down for an exclusive chat with Goal. Three months after his debut for Gokulam Kerala in I-League, the MSP school product is unmistakably delighted to reflect upon a phenomenal season that is sure to change his life for the better.
"I have been with Gokulam since the start of last year when they were playing in Kerala Premier League. I was with the Calicut University team when they won the All-India championship. When Gokulam started, the club played a friendly game with our University team and I had scored a goal," the player recounted the story of how he ended up with Bino George's team. "It was based on my performances there that I got to join Gokulam Kerala."
Life isn't easy for a young footballer. And most times, it is not even fair. The presence of foreign players in the team meant that Arjun had to wait for his chance. He waited patiently to turn his life around - from being a youngster who watched I-League on television to a footballer who played in India's top-division league week in, week out.
"Each game is helping me gain confidence. I only had the experience of watching I-League on TV," began Arjun. "I could not get chances at the beginning because there were foreigners in my positions. Then they started getting injured and I got my chance.
"As the confidence level increased after a few games, I was able to play well. I think I started believing I can play in the I-League!
"The coach had no choice at the start of the season. It wasn't an option to play me ahead of foreign players who were available. But the coach had the confidence to select me in the first team later when foreign players weren't available."
Arjun is swift-footed, has an eye for a pass and is always up for a contest in midfield. Moreover, he is ready to run the length of the pitch for ninety minutes every game, realizing the prospect of a well-fused, technically gifted box-to-box midfielder-cum-trequartista.
"I like to score goals and provide assists. When the match ends, I want to feel like I have contributed to the match. When people ask about what I did during the 90 minutes, I want to be able to give them an answer. Either score or help others score. I want to make that final pass or dribble forward in search of goals," said Arjun.
The test of consistency awaits the midfielder. He does not want to be a 'single-season wonder'. But the dilemma of whether to stay at your current club that has given you a chance to impress or to leave to chase even bigger dreams can potentially cloud decision-making skills. Arjun has big dreams that he is determined to chase and he knows the pros and cons of the two paths in front of him.
"For everyone, the dream will be to play in Indian Super League (ISL) and the Indian national team. Similarly, when I started playing I-League, I hoped to play well and get good offers, make enough money to support my family. There is a wish to play in ISL as well," he revealed.
"The reason so many Keralites got a chance to play is due to the emergence of Gokulam Kerala. I got to play directly in I-League and I have not played second-division league. Bino Geoge called me when I was trying to get a chance in the second-division league. Gokulam gave us a platform. And then after so many years, Kerala started being passionate due to Kerala Blasters.
"I have received 3-4 offers from other clubs but I have a three-year contract at Gokulam Kerala. If the club allows me to leave and it will help my career (for a better future), I would leave. If staying here is better for me, I would do that. I have not made a decision.
"The reason Keralites are getting a lot of chances here is that the coach and management are Keralites. At Kerala Blasters, the coach is foreign and the management is mostly from outside Kerala. Hence, the chance for Malayali players is fewer."
Gokulam Kerala has given ample opportunities for Kerala-born players this season and Arjun Jayaraj is one of many who has reaped the benefits. It will be interesting to see if the club will continue doing that, as Bino George makes way for new head coach Santiago Varela and Brazilian Luiz Greco joins the fold as the technical consultant next season.
Arjun will want to continue his good form in the Super Cup. A face-off against ISL finalist is sure to be watched by the whole country.
"My favourite footballer is Cristiano Ronaldo. Lionel Messi is the world's best footballer but I like Ronaldo because he worked hard to get to the top," he observed when asked about his role-model.
Arjun Jayaraj should take a leaf out of Ronaldo's book and do what he did - work his socks off to build a glorious career. Back at home, he has a supportive mother, father, a sister and his football-crazy uncle waiting to welcome home a football superstar.