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ISL: Puitea - Knew exactly what Eelco Schattorie expected out of me at NorthEast United

07:55 GMT+3 20/05/2019
Lalthathanga Khawlhring Puitea NorthEast United
The Mizoram-born had a breakthrough Indian Super League season with the Highlanders under the Dutchman...

Before Lalthathanga Khawlhring, fondly known as Puitea, could make his full debut in the Indian Super League (ISL), he had to be content with a place on the bench for five games.

He made late appearances in each of the five games but the moment finally came when he made his first start for NorthEast United, more than a year after signing for the Highlanders.

Loaned out straight after joining the club in the summer of 2017 to Aizawl FC, Puitea was named in the XI against Mumbai City at home in November 2018. There has been no looking back since for him. He has been one of the breakthrough talents to emerge in the fifth edition of the ISL.

"By God's grace, I had a very good season. The credit goes to the coach and the management staff for giving me support every day. I have tried to keep learning from day one, which led me to have a good season," Puitea told Goal over the telephone from his native Aizawl, where he was enjoying the close season with friends and family.

Puitea hailed Eelco Schattorie's man-management skills as he regarded the Dutch coach's process of easing him into the team. "The first thing which struck me about him was his honesty. On the first day itself, he said I need to work hard and stay patient. He said probably I would not start the first few games but I would get my chance. It is always good to know what the coach expects out of you and that prepared me mentally as well."

NorthEast United reached the playoffs for the very first time in their history and Puitea made an appearance in every game, making a further 12 starts in the final 14 games.

The 21-year-old turned out to be quite the manager's player as he slotted into all kinds of role, left wing, central midfield and sometimes on the right flank too.

"He didn't tell me anything specific about my positioning but suddenly one day, asked me if I could play left wing and I said yes, I can play", Puitea narrates how he was asked by Schattorie to change positions.

While Puitea has another year left at NorthEast United in his contract, Eelco Schattorie has left the club and has been unveiled as the Kerala Blasters manager now.

A fan of Pep Guardiola's Manchester City, Puitea believes his versatility derives from watching the beautiful game carefully on the television.

"I watch the football matches and notice the midfielders carefully. I pick up traits from there and that is why I could play in a variety of positions may be. I want to be one of the best players in India and one of the best midfielders in the country. I do not care about being a left-winger or a central midfielder. But, I would like to play as a number 8.

"I do not think that is a disadvantage (being able to fill in at various positions). If you can play two to three positions it becomes easier for a coach to select a player."

Before his move to the Guwahati outfit, Puitea was on the books at I-League side DSK Shivajians - his first professional taste of the game.

"Dave Rogers (then DSK Shivajians head coach) helped me a lot. He taught me how to control my body, what to eat, when to sleep and when to enjoy, the basics. They had good facilities - gym, swimming pool, everything was new for me, I hadn't seen such things or facilities before and that motivated me a lot," recalls Puitea.

However, there was a time in the past where Puitea's career was at the risk of being over before it even began.

"In 2012 when I was 14, I had a knee injury and the doctor said I could never play football again. I was heartbroken but I continued to pray to God and even my mother prayed hard for me. Thereafter, my operation was good and after one year I started to play football again," Puitea narrates where his family's financial constraints meant they could not afford to go out of the state and seek better medical care, taking a long time to get back into the game than expected.

Puitea has already played in the AFC Cup with Aizawl FC and is of the opinion that ISL sides should have more representation in the continental competition. "Of course more slots for the ISL in AFC Cup would benefit Indian football in the future."

"For me, the ISL is one of the top leagues in Asia. AFC Cup is a bit different because we have very little information about the teams and we seldom get to see their past matches so it is a bit difficult to have an idea about the other teams."

Puitea is not distracted by the crop of players getting their first-ever India camp call-up under new coach Igor Stimac. He believes his time will come in due time. "It is every player's dream to play for the national side and only the best of the best in the country can.

"It is not easy (to get in), but my job right now is to keep working hard and have a positive attitude, that will help me improve much more. By God's grace, I hope I will make it to the national team some day," he signed off.