Ashique Kuruniyan has had a hectic few months since the turn of the year. He partnered Sunil Chhetri to an impressive win against Thailand at the AFC Asian Cup but those celebrations were short-lived as defeats to UAE and Bahrain saw India crashing out of the tournament in the group stage.
He then went back to an FC Pune City (FCPC) side that was now led by Phil Brown and came close to turning around its Indian Super League campaign by making it to the playoffs. Off the pitch, he clashed with his club over non-payment of dues and even wrote to the All Indian Football Federation about it.
An injury at the end of the ISL season saw his miss Igor Stimac's King's Cup training camp, his first as the national team coach. He then didn't make the cut for the Intercontinental Cup squad. Ashique, though, isn't worried about what didn't happen. Instead, he is eager to join the upcoming camp in Goa.
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"I am looking forward to the training camp, it will be my first under Stimac," says an excited Ashique. And the reason for the excitement is the team's performances under Stimac in the two tournaments.
"Based on what I have seen of the team under Stimac, I am excited. We played good football, kept possession of the ball a lot which is good for the confidence of the players and were continuously passing it around," he explains. "When we are running around without the ball, we feel a little low and also it is difficult. But keeping the ball helps and the players also won’t get tired quickly."
Under Bob Houghton, Wim Kovermans and Stephen Constantine, the national team focused more on physical superiority than technical excellence. In the five games under Stimac, it looks like a long-needed shift in style is underway: keeping possession of the ball, quick passing, relentless pressing and building from the back. While results haven't gone India's way, much of that can be attributed to Stimac using both the tournaments to get an assessment of the players at his disposal rather than focusing on the results.
The match against Oman on September 5, India's first World Cup qualifier, is where the coach and his philosophy will be judged.
Both Constantine and Phil Brown always spoke highly of the Mallapuram-born player, with a special mention about his versatility always. A winger by trade, he played as a striker at the Asian Cup before being converted to a wing-back under Brown.
"I have always been a winger but then I understood the role of a striker under Constantine and I enjoyed that very much. I love both roles now," he says. Unsurprisingly, his favourite players - Lionel Messi, Mohamed Salah and Raheem Sterling - play in both positions and he can only hope to seamlessly adapt as they do.
- Full circle -
Many years ago, Anas Edathodika helped Ashique get a trial at the now-defunct Pune FC - a move that kickstarted his football career. That academy was acquired by FCPC, where he impressed to move to its senior team which helped him break into the national team. And at the upcoming camp in Goa, he will be reunited with Anas - a player he grew up idolising.
"All of this was a dream for me, and probably some of what's happening I would not have dreamt at all. I used to try my best to catch matches of my favourite players (Anas and Chhetri) and now I get to play with them," says Ashique, adding, "It is a big deal for me."
"The first aim for me is to show my fitness to the coach, I have not spoken to him so far but I hope to make a good first impression."
- Making amends -
While a lot of players set up their own academies post-retirement to give back to the sport, Ashique has already established one. His academy recently opened its doors in Mallapuram and he says the reason behind it is to help kids get proper coaching at an early age.
"The coaches in my career, Constantine and others, have all told me that I can always learn when I make mistakes but the right age to do so is 11 or 12," he says. "I didn't have any training at that age and now I am 22, I am old. I can learn now also but it is difficult."
"So for the kids who come from small towns here, those who have talent, I want them to get the right coaching at a young age as it happens abroad. I will try to help these kids develop when they are young and then send them for trials to academies of big clubs – be it ISL, I-League or any other division."
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