Image Credits: Fistosports
Unraveling the mystery of Jeppiaar sporting success, the Sports Director Abilash Rathnakaran, whose job is to help them stay afloat.
This powerful man once played college football at St. Joseph College before competing and succeeding as a Sports Director at Jeppiaar Engineering College. His football career was cut short when he broke his leg, but he continued to use sports as an outlet for his competitive spirit by grooming numbers of underprivileged kids into professional. He is believed to be the primary voice in Jeppiaar headset on game day and is a constant presence at the practice session. Fisto Sports spoke to Abilash, exclusively. In this tete-e-tete, he spoke about his journey.
Born in Trivandrum and raised in Chennai, Abilash attended St. Patrick's Anglo Indian Higher Secondary School. Although he started playing football from 11th standard, he was a permanent member of the school’s football team. “Those days we used to play football during P.T.periods, we played football with tennis balls so that’s how football came into my life first,” remembers Abilash. After completing his higher studies, Abilash pursued his engineering course through sports quota and completed his BE in Electronics and Instrumentation from St.Joseph's College of Engineering, Chennai. He played as stopper centre-back during his college days, also captained the college team. After that his football took a back-seat due to injury, but little did he know his return a few years later would turn out to be extremely special.
Abilash Rathnakaran has come a long way since 2011 when he first got actively involved with the Jeppiaar group of institutions as an assistant professor of Electronics and Instrumentation Engineering, “which had nothing to do with the physical education department.” When he joined Jeppiaar as Assistant Professor, there were few football players in the college team, they came and approached Abilash to coach the football team. ‘That’s how football came back into my life again,’ says Abilash. “I started coaching the team with the permission of the management. In the morning, I will take coaching session and engineering classes after that.” Under his coaching reign, the team performed well, had some great memories of winning all the major university tournaments. To get his team’s success to a wider audience, Abilash approached the media houses for the support which he gained ultimately and still does.
“Weekly once our team picture would be appearing in the newspapers. We kept it as a target, the players were also very supportive,” he said.
Inception of Jeppiaar Sports Academy
Summer of 2014 was the year the institution saw a major shift in its sporting structure when they introduced Jeppiaar Sports Academy to unearth football talent in the state of Tamil Nadu. Over the years, Abilash and his team have devoted thousands of hours to conducting trials for the needy young football players across Tamil Nadu. Heading the sporting team of such diversified institutions like Jeppiaar as a Sporting director, Abilash has been instrumental in initiating and following up on many talents across the state. Abilash and his team that set up talent hunt looked at criteria of the selection from two points of view. One all the selected players should possess the immense talent of extraordinaire and should be underprivileged kids. The other was that there was an opportunity to start from scratch and do something different.
Dr.Regeena Jeppiaar, Chairman of Jeppiaar Group of Institutions posing with football team
At all levels, students will be tested on their football skills through matches or football-related activities like dribbling and goal shooting by a panel of three coaches of Jeppiaar in respective cities. The large open space was an oasis for kids seeking an escape from the chaotic web of humanity and commerce outside.
During the first year of Jeppiaar Sports Academy, Abilash and his team scouted over 4, 000 students from the age category of U-13, U-15 and U-18 across the entire districts of Tamil Nadu and bits in Kerala, looking for potential superstars by holding over 1,000 games at nearly 100 fields. And in the end picked 700 players and all the 700 was welcomed to Jeppiaar campus where they organized 3 days training camp and shortlisted 80 players. From that, they whittled it down to 45 players combining all the age categories in a month-long camp inside the campus. All the selected players were given free education by enrolled in Jeppiaar Matriculation School with all the A to Z basic accommodation being covered by the management. While at the academy, the boys took on the city’s top teams and often crushed them. To spur the players’ development, Jeppiaar have tie-ups with some Leading Football Academies & Clubs in Spain. And one Abilash big vision is that he wants his players to play in European countries by saying,“Tamil Nadu players have everything to play in European Leagues but they need a perfect platform from a very young age and proper guidance to make the dream a reality.” But it’s not all about Abilash. He has surrounded himself by the right people who have guided him impeccably. One such name is the director of the college, Dr.Regeena Jeppiaar, Chairman of Jeppiaar Group of Institutions, with her hard work and determination, has made the institution reach greater heights.
Under her leadership, Jeppiaar Sports Academy has successfully created a brand name in the field of sport and revolutionized the concept of grassroots in Tamil Nadu. Explaining further, “The problem in India has historically been that there haven’t been significant resources at either the public or private level dedicated to developing young players to represent their countries, although that is slowly changing with the proliferation of private academies in some parts of the nation with the likes of JSW Group and Tata Football Academy but it’s still not up to to the level of European countries.”
Abilash believes that “you need both technical aspects and player finding aspect to be a successful sports academy.” While Tamil Nadu has produced some of India’s emerging football stars in recent years, including Chennaiyin’s Dhanpal Ganesh and Jamshedpur’s Michael Soosairaj, Abilash believed these players were just the tip of a massive iceberg of talent. “Most of the science group students would be reluctant to take up professional career further when they go to college, but if someone wants to continue that, most of them would come to us.” Since its inception, the academy has produced a number of players but Abilash is quite proud and takes inspiration from Sinivasan Pandiyan, who is currently playing for Indian Super League club Chennaiyin FC. Pandiyan, who hails from Thanjavur, scouted by Jeppiaar Sports Academy in 2013. 'It’s really tough for an Engineering student to make it to the glitz and glamour of Indian Super League,’ said Abilash. “We picked Pandiyan from Thanjavur, during trials Pandiyan had an injury in his hand, and we didn’t even conduct proper trials for him.” “And one year he couldn’t play because of the injury, only started playing regular from the second year. The third year we signed him for Indian Bank and Viva Chennai before joining Chennai City FC in 2017. Though he only played for one season for the I-league club, he made himself a name by playing some extraordinary game of football.” Pandiyan had played in 17 matches for Chennai City, starting 16, while playing a pivotal role for the club from midfield and forming a partnership with Michael Soosairaj, who is now enjoying his stint at Jamshedpur FC. After a sole season in Chennai City FC, Pandiyan took another step forward, this time signing for reigning champion Chennaiyin FC following an impressive performance in the second half of the season. Abilash reminisces, ‘During Pandiyan’s first year at college where he couldn’t play any games due to injuries but there was a time team was a shortage for a penalty taker, we were reluctant to ask him to take it but he came forward a moment of hesitation and won us a couple of games, that are still livid in my mind.”
“He would always stay and practice for an extra half an hour on the areas he had most difficulties. The way he trained, the way he motivated his team-mates, the way he corrected them, his will to win, his will to impress, was superior to all the others.”
Today, Abilash feels happy when the systems and infrastructure of Jeppiaar are praised all over the nation. In the time since, the football team captured Anna University Champions for past 3 years, also University’s Zonal Trophy Winners for Four Consecutive Years, broken a handful of records and contended in many of the country’s most prestigious football events. This year alone, two players represented Santosh Trophy, the 13 players from sub-junior team played state tourney and 5 players played Tamil Nadu Junior Nationals all in one year.
Another success story: This time, Kabaddi
Not only football, but Abilash has also steered the sport of Kabaddi into Jeppiaar’s sporting-infrastructure development through poverty-stricken kids from Kannagi Nagar residents. When Chennai flooded in end-2015, the state government evicted various working-class families from slums to suburb rehabilitation area which is now Kannagi Nagar. Abilash with the help of City Police Sports Club formed two U-12 Kabaddi teams – both boys and girls team. They were given practice at the Jeppiaar ground, with all the basic accommodation and coaching being covered at free of cost.
College officials and coach with Kannagi Nagar girls Kabaddi team
The success followed later as the U-12 Kabaddi team won last year city finals and qualified for the national Pro Kabaddi Juniors tournament while playing some scintillating game of Kabaddi, reaching the finals, where they lost to Haryana. Abilash reminisces the finals, “At the first half, boys were trailing 5-28 what looked like an utter one-sided game of Kabaddi, but after half-time the boys really upped their game, played really well and the end result was 32-34. Though we lost by a margin of two points, it was really a moment to cherish.”
Kabaddi Juniors National Finalists
With high on junior success, a new generation has now dawned on the Jeppiaar outlook on Kabaddi that is sure to give hungry young players a chance to emulate their predecessors and become heroes in their own right. In 2017, Jeppiaar formed senior Kabaddi team and the girl’s team was this year University winners and recently 5 players have been chosen to represent Anna University in all India Universities Tourney. Recently, Jeppiaar also joined hands with Tamil Thalaivas and formed Jeppiaar Tamil Thalaivas Residential Kabaddi Academy –India's first ever private residential academy dedicated to the sport.
Dr. Regeena Jeppiaar and Abilash with Tamil Thalaivas team
Abliash vision of finding the young and groom them into professional, especially underprivileged children deserve much notable attention and the same also reflects in their success. Under him, Jeppiaar is developing large projects in the campus; one of them is to build one of the most high-tech International football school, which will be trained by foreign coaches with 5-star facilities.