Ashutosh Mehta: 'I have never seen a coach as hard-working as Khalid Jamil'

The former Mumbai FC player talks about his unforgettable debut season with Aizawl FC, which was crowned the I-League champion this season.

Ashutosh Mehta...“It's always good when football takes you places to experience new challenges.”   -  Vivek Bendre

Ashutosh Mehta has experienced an unforgettable season with Aizawl FC, a club he stumbled on to after being released by Mumbai FC last season. As it turned out, his old club was relegated after finishing 10th, and his new club was crowned the I-League champion.

The 26-year-old witnessed first-hand football’s craze in the north-east. He spoke at length to Sportstar on his memorable ride under the aegis of coach Khalid Jamil for his first I-League title.

Excerpts:

Q: The passion for football in India’s north-east is a new experience for Mumbai football followers. Why are they crazy about the game? Do you have a personal experience to share?

A: North-east was always passionate about football and music. Everyone follows the sport here in Mizoram .When we arrived at the airport (after winning the I-League) there were thousands of people to welcome us. The streets were packed with fans. We are household names here. The moment we step out on the streets, people want to meet you, take photographs. It is not something which happened to us in Mumbai.

The question on everyone’s mind is, what next after the I-League triumph?

To be honest, I really don’t know. As of now, we are getting ready for the Federation Cup coming up next. None of us at Aizawl played in a Federation Cup before in our career, so we want to prove ourselves once again.

The challenge before a new club like Aizawl will be to retain the same group of players for the next season. Is there a second rung of players ready to take over, in case its best players move to bigger clubs?

I don’t know what the rules state about players signing. If you are asking about talent here in Mizoram, I will say there are local players available who can be trained to take our places.

Footballers from the north-east are present in every Indian club, I-League or the Indian Super League. Following the crowning of Aizawl FC as India’s champion club, can the next generation of footballers there stay home and making a living?

North-east is the engine of Indian football. There is a lot of talent there and just need a platform to showcase talent. I hope they get a chance, now that a club from there is India’s champion club. Mizoram players are tremendously hard-working and deserve it. I watched a few local league games here after arriving here from Mumbai and the quality of play was amazing. I feel local footballers should move out and prove their talent with clubs elsewhere in India, only then will more new faces emerge.

Aizawl was a new city, new culture for you. Having learnt football lessons in Mumbai from the juniors to seniors, was adjustment tough?

It was difficult initially, because food, weather, culture, people and the lifestyle is very different from Mumbai, but eventually the people over here in Aizawl made us feel very comfortable. It's always good when football takes you places to experience new challenges.

As an outsider in a new city and a new club, what did you do to win over respect and affection from team-mates and fans?

In professional football, only performance speaks. In the first few games, our performance as player and coach helped gain acceptance from locals.

Coach Jamil credited players’ contribution and Aizawl fan support for the title win. As a player on squad, your views on coach and fans?

I have never seen a coach so hard-working and dedicated towards football. Khalid Jamil’s passion for the game is what makes me adore him even more. If there is someone who deserves the I-League trophy the most it's him. The Aizawl fans have been spot on since day one and I want to thank them for the love and support given to us throughout the season.

How did you feel for coach Jamil and yourself after the first-ever I-League title for both of you? What did the coach tell you immediately after the 1-1 draw (a result that confirmed Aizawl FC’s rise to the top)?

Being called the champion team of our nation is the best feeling in the world. I still can't get over it (sic) that we have created history in Indian football. Coach never takes the credit. He always praises us players for their hard work.

What was your first reaction when the whistle went off to signal your team’s draw with Shillong Lajong?

I just looked up to the sky and thanked the almighty for everything he has done. God is great.

Mumbai FC’s relegation means no player or team from the city will be able to play in I-League. Your reaction?

All my life I had played in Mumbai. Mumbai will always be special to me, no matter what. It really hurts because Mumbai FC can't play in I-League any more (due to relegation) . If they (city players) get a chance to play again I will be the happiest person.

Will players from Mumbai FC and other young players find it easier to move to Aizawl FC in the coming season?

Young players should grab opportunity with both your hands, whenever it may be. We moved to Mizoram from Mumbai only because of the coach. He has given us (Mehta and Jayesh Rane) breaks in the development squad at Mumbai FC and when he asked us, we had no option. Mumbai footballers have more choices, don’t know if they wish to come here.

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