Hitesh Sharma made just four appearances in the 2015-16 edition of I-League and had only four starts in the following season.
He was a teenager looking to play more games and hoped a move to Indian Super League (ISL) club ATK would be the turning point. But after two seasons at the Kolkata-based club, he had to leave looking for first-team minutes.
The 2020-21 season of ISL, under the head coach Manuel Marquez, has now become the big break Hitesh has been waiting for all his professional career. For the first time in his career, he has featured more than 10 times in the starting lineup and clocked more than a 1000 minutes in a single season.
The Jalandhar-born player has only missed three league games for Hyderabad this season and has started 13 games in midfield. He is pleased to have played so many games but has his feet firmly on the ground as the Nizams chase a spot in the playoffs for the first time since their inception last year.
He told Goal, "As a team, it has been a really good season for us so far. I have been decent this season but I think it is the performance of the players around me that makes me look good. So, I can say that season has gone well but there is still a long way to go."
The former Mumbai FC and ATK midfielder is part of a squad that possesses more than few talented Indian and foreign players. Hitesh believes his club has able characters in the dressing room who can help each other strive for success this season.
He also heaped praise on the impact of Manuel Marquez, who took over before the season kicked off and after Albert Roca received an offer to join FC Barcelona as a fitness coach. Marquez has done a good job with a young squad and his efforts have already been rewarded with a new contract.
"We have some really talented players in the squad. We also have good foreign players helping us but what is more important is that every player in our team is a good human being, ready to give everything for the club. For me, this team involved every player in the squad and also the staff. They are who make our performances stand out in games."
He added, "Manolo (Marquez) is a really popular coach in Spain. His understanding of the players, especially the young ones, and bringing the best out of them has made him a real asset for everyone involved with the club. It is difficult to explain the style of play but for me, it is how he handles things mentally that sets him apart."
Hyderabad are currently third on the table with 27 points from 18 matches and will go through to the knockout round if they win their last two games. Reaching the playoffs is an important feat for the club as the Nizams had a debut season to forget which saw them finish at the bottom of the standings.
"I don’t really want to talk about the past. For me, as is for most players at the club, this is a chance for us to prove ourselves. I want to grow as a player here and want to fulfil my dreams. That is what we focus on and we rarely think about the other teams.
"Like I already said, we have a group of really talented youngsters at Hyderabad. But I like to believe that our biggest strength is that we play as a team," the player began.
"We have a striker in Aridane Santana, who acts as our first line of defence and a goalkeeper in Laxmikant Kattimani, who is capable of starting attacks from the back. The statistics also show how involved every player is and I think that is what makes us stand out as individuals. They are full of quality. But our team best quality is we play as a team."
Hitesh has been a solid presence in midfield and is a player who gives his all on the field. The teamwork at Hyderabad has worked wonders and they are currently unbeaten in their last 10 matches - it is their longest unbeaten run ever in ISL.
They are set to face league leaders ATK Mohun Bagan up next and will end their season with a heavyweight clash against playoff rivals FC Goa.