At the age of 33, Lester Fernandez is currently a coach at the SP Academy and St. Xaviers’ school, Nerul at Navi Mumbai. He also represented Kenkre FC in the Mumbai District Football Association (MDFA) Elite Division last season.
Fernandez was two matches away from clinching his first MDFA Elite Division as Kenkre led the table before the season was suspended owing to the Coronavirus pandemic. Winning the league would have been a good end to his playing career, Fernandez felt.
“Maybe I have played only 60-70 per cent of my football,” he expressed to Goal. “I could have played for another four-to-five years or maybe more than that but it just didn’t click. I don’t know what to say about it also because the teams that I went to either closed down or the coach changed.
“I didn’t want to go and play in the second division also back then, coming from the ISL. Maybe that is the fault I made. I should have maybe played somewhere to make my comeback.”
Fernandez fetched Pune FC (now disbanded) a transfer fee of INR 20 lakhs when he moved to Kolkata outfit United SC in 2012. His stock had risen after he was voted the FPAI (Football Players’ Association of India) Fans’ Player of the Year for his performance in the 2010-11 I-League. However, Fernandez never thought he would disappear into obscurity so soon.
“For me, you know, what is hard to swallow is that I just vanished away from the scene and people don’t even know what was the main reason. It was not about my fitness or anything,” he insisted.
Football came spontaneously for Lester, who explained, “The area where I grew up was called Austin Town. Players like Carlton Chapman, Noel Wilson are all from the same area. Chapman played for India at that time. So everybody in our area wanted to be a footballer like him. I lived just behind the ground where all the players used to train. So I could see football happening right in front of my eyes.”
As a youngster, Fernandez turned up for Bangalore ‘A’ Division side Wheel and Axle Plant of the Indian Railways for a season and played at the U-16 level for Karnataka before joining the famed Tata Football Academy (TFA) in 2003.
Soon after his graduation, he joined Dempo SC but soon lost his patience over lack of playing time. “Dempo had really good players that time and I wasn’t getting much of a chance. Armando (Colaco) Sir asked me to have some patience but I always used to crib because I was out of TFA and my batchmates were playing at Sporting (Clube de Goa). And I thought that I couldn’t afford to sit on the bench.”
A season each at Vasco SC and Salgaocar FC was followed by a better stint at Pune wherein the Red Lizards finished third and fifth in the I-League but he personally excelled. He went on to win the IFA Shield with United SC (then Prayag United).
“After I left Dempo, I started to play well. The time at Pune was the peak and so I cannot regret that I left Dempo.”
Fernandez made his way back to Pune after Mumbai Tigers pulled out from participating in the 2013-14 I-League, followed by a title winning season with ISL outfit Atletico de Kolkata (now ATK or ATK-Mohun Bagan).
Back then, the two leagues were not played concurrent to each other, with the I-League following the ISL. Lester joined newly formed Bharat FC (now disbanded) in 2015. However, in just nine games, an injury was going to change the course of Fernandez’s playing career.
“My (football) journey has been very good until I suffered [the ACL] injury in 2015. I was about to sign for FC Goa,” he revealed. “They had even sent me the contract but just before signing, there was an East Bengal match in which I got injured. The  ISL was going to start in a few months but my injury took another eight months to recover.”
“After returning from my surgery, Bharat FC also shut shop,” Fernandez rued his misfortune.
“I don’t know if it was timing or what because the same year (2015) after my surgery, I had gone to Mumbai FC. I trained with them for one month and I was already fit but then they signed Arata (Izumi) from the ISL.
“I was supposed to sign for Chennai City (in 2017) but the coach (Robin Charles Raja) who called me there was sacked,” Fernandez continued to narrate his ordeal.
“Then I didn’t want to play for any second division club and that year got wasted. Then after three years, automatically I’m off the radar. So it became irritating. Even last year (2019), Ashok Sir (Dr. Ashok Kumar) who was at Pune FC (former general manager) called me to Gokulam (Kerala) but I thought against moving out of Mumbai.”
Lester Fernandez made his international debut under former India coach Savio Medeira in 2012 and only has a couple of caps to his name.
“Now, you know how it works. Whether you have played football for five years or 10 years, you will have to go [to any club] on a trial basis. So maybe after a good pre-season, I could try out somewhere but I still have to think about it. If I play for a couple of years, either ways I will have to establish myself all over. There are also many coaches these days who are doing their licenses. So who knows what the future holds,” signed off the AFC ‘D’ License holder.