Ashutosh Metha's 12-year slogging was worth the wait

Ashutosh Metha's 12-year slogging was worth the wait

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Ashutosh Mehta (right) was an integral part of Northeast United FC's campaign this season

Ashutosh Mehta was recently called-up for the national team ahead of India's international friendlies against Oman and UAE, following his brilliant run with Northeast United FC in the 2020-21 ISL. Having flourished under Khalid Jamil since his Mumbai FC days until now, his journey has been special.

Not a once-in-a-generation talent, nor that he sprung into the limelight as an overnight success, but Ashutosh Mehta’s story has escalated gradually through the years – the journey so far is one to cherish for the footballer and enjoyable to go through as a neutral. 

Born in Mumbai, a city renowned for producing top-notch cricketers ever since India’s representation on the world stage, the young lad had to fight odds before making his senior debut for I-League side Mumbai FC. It was not a popular outfit on the western coast, with their home matches drawing minimal attendance at the Cooperage Stadium.

Back then, during the pre-Indian Super League era, running football clubs were not profitable for the owners, with few teams being able to sustain themselves in the top-tier – I-League. Operating with frugal investments meant spending most of the purse on foreign recruitments while luring in Indians on a lighter payroll. Khalid Jamil – a budding footballer forced to retire and manage Mumbai FC, showed faith in the teenager and forged a partnership that would grow along the years till the present day.

Mumbai FC were always the team to resist big shots and gain enough points to shy away from the relegation zone. At the heart of everything they achieved was Ashutosh Mehta, standing tall in the defense with a never-say-die attitude, applying all the inputs given by his favourite ‘Khalid Bhai in the training sessions. In spite of his consistent performance, it was only in the inaugural edition of the Indian Super League that he was uplifted when FC Pune City brought him on loan for the season.

Even though he was worthy of a full-time contract with an ISL franchise, Ashutosh continued to invade in both spheres –  the Indian Super League or the I-League, whatever the occasion.  Ironically, it was following the exit footsteps of mentor Khalid Jamil from Mumbai FC to Aizawl FC that brought him acclaim as well as shaped his career. 

Who doesn’t love underdog stories? Ashutosh Mehta, one of the focal figures in the triumph, was the talk of the town once again after Aizawl FC's historic I-League win. A club from Kolkata had already begun their plot to rope in the side-back.

Ashutosh Mehta after winning the 2016-17 I-League trophy with Alzawl FC © Twitter

It’s not that he was a total failure during his ATK days, back in 2017-18, but the string of poor performances from the side that eventually saw them finish at the eighth position forced them to change the roster altogether. Shifting back to FC Pune City did not help him either. Two back-to-back seasons without much success, that’s the point where most footballers might have given up on their fortunes or wake every morning – crestfallen and disappointed. But, he was different, experience made him strong from the inside, while an offer from Mohun Bagan in the I-League re-ignited his career once again.

Agreed that it was a demotion in terms of quality of leagues, but still, no less than a challenge for the Mumbai-based footballer to re-establish himself and steer Bagan – a side not convinced to settle for less than a trophy – to their fifth national league title. Taken care by yet another watchful tactician – Kibu Vicuna, the footballer patched up his flaws and renewed himself to produce yet another set of magical performances last season, guiding his new employers to a victory in the first and only season at the century-old club. Then again, the ‘green and maroon’ brigade merged with ISL outfits ATK and all the players from the I-League winning squad were without a contract.

Luck does play a small but significant part sometimes. Incidentally, Ashutosh Mehta’s long-time mentor was serving as the assistant coach of Northeast United in the ISL and taking care of Indian recruitments. There was no way he could have missed out on the sensational football display his pupil offered in the ‘deemed’ second tier of Indian football. There was no option but to summon Ashutosh Mehta and get involved in the scheme of things.

The reunion was on the cards, but the extent of the success was unknown to either party. Initially, it was a see-saw ride, with the ‘Highlanders’ in dire straits by the mid-season. Gerard Nus was sacked and Khalid Jamil was inducted as the interim head coach for the remainder of the season. Given a free hand, the former I-League winning coach deputed Mehta as a regular in his preferred position.

11 games later when Ashutosh Mehta got a national call-up after Northeast United FC made it to the play-offs in the ISL; part of the credit definitely went to Khalid Jamil. A 12-year struggle for earning the blue jersey had finally paid-off, with the footballer dialling up his mother no sooner than the news broke.

“It’s a feeling of pride to wear the National Team kit and jersey. I was so happy when I saw my name on the list of 35 players who were called up to the National Team camp. Immediately, the first person I called was my mother. My whole family is really happy and proud!” said Ashutosh Mehta.

We can point out several ‘rags to riches’ incidents or footballers impressing in a lone season and getting fast-tracked to the international setup. But, Ashutosh Mehta’s story is special, with him coming through the ranks, proving himself in each step, claiming trophies, being overlooked, and repeating the drill all over again. With him currently in Dubai for the preparatory camp ahead of the international matches against Oman and UAE, hopefully, the footballer only rises up from now onwards.

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