Indian Super League (ISL) outfit Chennaiyin FC's Jeje Lalpekhlua is one of the success stories of the All India Football Federation's (AIFF) Pailan Arrows project, which was started in 2010 as AIFF XI. The Mizo striker went on to garner fame with his accomplishments as a young striker in the Arrows team and now stands as one of India's best forwards.
Now, the Arrows project, which was shut down in 2013, has been reinstated under Portuguese coach Luis Norton de Matos, comprising of players from the India U17 team which participated in the U17 World Cup held in India last October.
Speaking to Goal exclusively, Jeje opined that it was very hard for young Indian strikers, especially, to get regular opportunities to play and hence the move to restart the Arrows project is an inspired idea.
"Yes, it is a brilliant project. When I was in Pailan Arrows, we had at least four players that season who played for the Indian national team. I am a striker and for us, it is very difficult to get a chance in an I-League team," he said. "All the clubs will play foreign strikers and then they made Pailan Arrows which gave us our chance. So it is a great opportunity (restarting the project).
"Now, clubs are also thinking differently. Before, the clubs would take note of your name and seniority in football. Now, they are looking at young players seriously. The U17 World Cup players in the Indian Arrows are doing very well. I want to see them soon in the national team."
The 27-year-old striker has been enjoying a fine ISL season with Chennaiyin FC this time around. He has led the lines efficiently for the South Indian team and has already scored seven goals. Jeje is relishing the opportunity of shouldering the goalscoring responsibilities for the team but also credits his teammates for chipping in when needed.
"Yes (I'm enjoying the role) but the responsibility is not just on me. I'm enjoying the role but this season our defenders and midfielders have also been scoring the goals for us. That is why we are in the right place in the league.
"We play and work as a team which is one of our secrets of success."
He also revealed that his game has changed a bit under the guidance of coach John Gregory and he is not just somebody who thrived in the penalty box now.
"John wants me to press high now. Whenever the other team has the ball, I have to press and run more. It is a bit different from playing under Marco Materazzi as now I have to work more under John.
"This season, only Chennaiyin FC (they do not have a recognised foreign striker in the starting XI unlike other teams) are playing with a lead Indian striker. When the league started, I was thrown a challenge to score goals and help the team because the other teams have foreign strikers who are scoring goals.
"So I work even harder during training to achieve my own targets. My target is to become the highest goalscorer in the league," said a confident Jeje, despite being five goals shy of league topscorer Ferran Corominas' (FC Goa) tally.
Jeje is also an important cog in Indian national team coach Stephen Constantine's plans. The Mizoram-born striker is looking forward to playing in the AFC Asian Cup in 2019 for which India have already secured qualification.
"The AFC Asian Cup is a huge tournament for us. Right now, we are in the right direction with a 12-game unbeaten run. Our target is to do well in the tournament.
"People want to know when we will play the World Cup but I think we need to first do well in the Asian Cup and then see about the World Cup."
He also went on to highlight the fact that Indian strikers are doing well in ISL this season, which is of benefit for the Indian national team, with an important tournament coming up. Sunil Chhetri (8), for whom Jeje has massive admiration, and Balwant Singh (6) have also been scoring goals in the ISL.
"It is good for Indian football that Indian strikers are scoring - Sunil, Balwant etc. Sunil bhai is doing so well and he helps us a lot with goals. We all look up to him. It is going to be difficult to take up his mantle but I would like to work hard and try doing that."
Before he concluded, Jeje went on to thank the fans in Chennai who have given him staunch support after the inception of the ISL.
"The fans in Chennai are one of the best in the country. Especially for me, the Supermachans come and support me even in Bengaluru. They come up with banners for me and give a lot of support," said the striker.