It was an impressive comeback for Ashutosh Mehta in the Indian Super League (ISL) this season as he was an integral part of NorthEast United's stellar campaign as they reached the play-offs for the second time in the club's history by finishing third in the league.
Mehta returned to the top tier of Indian football after a gap of one year and became a vital cog in NorthEast United's backline. In the 18 matches he played, the right-back scored one goal and provided two assists. He also made 62 tackles, 23 interceptions and 26 blocks and delivered 22 crosses.
The comeback wasn't all flowery for Mehta as he was diagnosed with coronavirus in the pre-season. He also faced hardship on the personal front but despite all the setbacks, Mehta was able to fight it out and in the end, put up an impressive show.
"It was a very challenging season for me personally, for the Covid situation. I was diagnosed with Covid, so I could not join the team from the beginning. Then my mother got critical and my grandmother expired. On the professional front, we did not have a full-fledged pre-season but we adapted really well. The season tested our mental faculties to their limits. If a player is not mentally strong then he would have suffered," Mehta told Goal in an exclusive chat.
His performance not just helped NorthEast United, it also earned him his maiden national team call-up. The Mumbai-born defender was undoubtedly pleased to finally get the chance of donning the national colour but he also maintained that he is in no way getting carried away and is instead focusing on making the most of the chance he has got.
"It is a huge thing for me to get called up to the national camp. But I am keeping my head down. This is just a call for the camp. There will be lots of challenges ahead. My persistence finally paid off. I came close on a few occasions but I never made the cut. At the same time, I did not give up. I have waited long for this opportunity and I am going to give my all in the training sessions," said Mehta.
He also added, "I am the type of player who wants to learn and improve. It will be a great opportunity for me to learn from the coach (Igor Stimac). He was a defender himself so looking forward to learning as much as I can from him."
The player reunited with coach Khalid Jamil at NorthEast United after a gap of three seasons. Mehta had started his professional career under the tutelage of Jamil at Mumbai FC and the last time he played under the coach they went on to script history at Aizawl FC by winning the I-League title.
Expressing his gratitude towards his coach, Mehta said, "It was a great season but we wanted to reach the finals. But it is okay, part of football. Khalid Bhai changed the dynamic in the squad. He is one coach that I am prepared to die for. He knows me for 10 years now and he has the perfect idea of what can I deliver for the team. I follow his instructions and I try to replicate them on the pitch. It is very simple. Whenever I play for him, I give everything on the pitch."