A decade and counting: Jayesh Rane-Ashutosh Mehta partnership moves to ATK
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The script may have been very different were it not for a phone call in 2008.
Jayesh Rane had decided to go for the Under-15 tryouts of the now disbanded Mahindra United Football Club. His senior at Thakur College from Kandivali in Mumbai, Ashutosh Mehta, knew of Rane’s potential and asked him to come for trials at city rivals Mumbai FC, where he was part of the junior squad.
Rane, now 24, barely knew Mehta, 26, off the football pitch, but heeded his advice anyway. And at the age of 15, he was picked up for the Mumbai FC Under-19 side.
This decade-long partnership between Mehta and Rane has seen it all—from the nerve-wracking relegation battles at Mumbai FC, to an I-League crown with Aizawl FC last season that made the country take note of what is now India’s favourite underdog story.
That alliance will enter its 11th year come November, with the Mumbai boys now hoping to make waves with the most successful club of the Indian Super League (ISL), Atlético de Kolkata (ATK, soon to be christened Amar Tomar Kolkata).
At the ISL draft last month, Rane was present in the back rows. His three seasons with Chennaiyin FC, with whom he won a title in 2015, had come to an end. After his selection in round 4, he was headed to the big, bad—almost fanatic—world of Kolkata football with ATK. He hoped Mehta too would make the cut for the same team.
“Ten rounds of the draft were over,” recalls Rane, catching his breath after a game of 7-a-side turf football on an overcast Saturday evening.
“I called him after round 10, slightly concerned since there were just five rounds left. Ashutosh clearly couldn’t be bothered, as he mumbled something in his sleep and hung up.”
During the break, Rane got into a conversation with Ashley Westwood, director of football at ATK, and learnt that he was looking for a defender. Rane slipped in his buddy’s name, and was pleasantly surprised to see that Westwood too had good things to say about him.
The moment proceedings resumed, Mehta was picked up by Kolkata, in round 11. The two were set for another season.
“He woke me up again and said, bhai, same team hai apan abhi bhi (We’re still on the same team). I could hardly believe my ears,” says Mehta.
Rane and Mehta’s football careers have almost identical timelines—two youngsters who played the game like most others at school, until they realized that they had it in them to turn professional. As teenagers, they found a mentor and a constant source of encouragement in coach Khalid Jamil, who was then in charge of the juniors at Mumbai FC.
“What we learnt from him was that there was no substitute for hard work. He told us to not stop until we got there,” Mehta says.
“Under him, I played every position there is besides goalkeeper; it’s the same for Jayesh. He introduced these dynamics in our game, asked us to take risks. He groomed us for the big league,” he adds.
When Jamil took charge of the senior team in 2009, he called upon a bunch of juniors, including Mehta (2010-11) and Rane (2011-12). The two became regulars in the team until Jamil stepped down in 2016. In between, the ISL took Mehta to FC Pune City and Mumbai City FC, while Rane spent three seasons at Chennaiyin.
When Jamil joined Aizawl FC, he reached out to his favourite protégés. Such was their faith in him that they didn’t even bother to look at the contract papers, and landed directly in Kolkata for the season opener against East Bengal. In their words, it was payback time for all that Jamil had done for them during those early years.
“Khalid bhai is often criticized as a defensive coach. But it really depends on the players he has. You can see what he did with Aizawl,” says Mehta.
“We were being offered big sums from clubs such as Bagan. I called Jayesh—he was hesitant and so was I. We decided to ignore the money and the profile of Aizawl, only for the coach. You will laugh if I tell you how much Jayesh Rane got paid,” he adds, chuckling.
The stint with Aizawl was a new experience in every sense—everything from the language to the food, the hilly terrain and the travel, a nightmare for Rane, who suffers from motion sickness. But they found a common link in football that the Mizos are all too familiar with. Besides, there were other perks that strengthened the bond between the mates.
“Khalid bhai never let us stay roommates—keeda bahut hai hum log main (we’re always up to no good). This time around, we had rooms to ourselves, yet we chose to stay together. For the first time, the coach didn’t object, maybe because he wanted us to be comfortable. The town shuts early, so there wasn’t much to do. Jayesh was the cook most days, my job was chopping the onions. He can dish out some fantastic omelettes and Maggi. He’s also the heartbreak kid in Aizawl,” Mehta says with a laugh.
“People would wish us luck and remind us of the next fixture almost a week in advance. That’s how much they look forward to an Aizawl game. We made a lot of people happy by winning the title. It’s the biggest thing that has happened to me, Ashutosh and Khalid bhai,” Rane says.
Once the celebrations ended, the duo pondered over the next challenge at hand—picking between the ISL and I-League, since they will run in parallel this season onwards. On the one hand was a competition jazzed up for the masses, and featuring the best crop of players from India. On the other was a mentor, who had now taken up the reins at East Bengal, and a guaranteed opportunity to live their common dream of playing in Kolkata.
A number of phone calls were exchanged. This time, it was Rane’s conviction that sold the ISL to Mehta. Fate did the rest to keep them together.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer.