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The Hyderabad FC left-back also spoke on his goals for the next ISL season, teammates and International debut with the Blue Tigers.

Growing up, football was a sport in which Akash Mishra grew slowly, mostly because kids in the neighbourhood held a cricket bat in hand first. Like many of his friends, the Hyderabad FC left-back began with gully cricket. However, as fate would have it, that was not his destiny. When he watched his cousins and their friends play a game of football “in a small field beside our house,” he instantly became interested. It was a decision that changed his life forever.

“Initially, I just joined them to enjoy,” recalled Akash in an exclusive chat with Khel Now. “But, I was slowly attracted to the game. The passion for football grew in me and eventually it decided my future,” he added. Akash Mishra was only an 11-year-old at the time.

He turned 19 in November 2020, just four days after debuting for Hyderabad FC in the Indian Super League 2020-21 season. Akash Mishra went on to play every minute of the Nizams’ campaign in the ISL last season. The defender also led the club’s chart for most passes (827), interceptions (55), tackles (80) and touches (1250). For interceptions, Akash had the third-best record in the league in the previous campaign.

Akash admits he didn’t think he would clock these many minutes in his first season in India’s top-flight league. “It is always a surprise when you play the first game of your debut season. But the coach, Manolo Marquez, showed trust in me,” the youngster revealed in a telephonic conversation.

Trust was not the only thing the Spanish tactician had for Akash Mishra. He had seen and predicted a bright future for the left-back after just one game.

He will be one of the finest left-backs in India soon,” Marquez had said after Mishra made a last-ditch tackle to stop Nandhakumar Sekar from scoring in a 1-0 victory for Hyderabad FC against Odisha in his debut game.

After a memorable debut season, the teenage defender also revelaed that he is thankful to have Marquez as his coach at Hyderabad FC.

“He always encourages and tells us not to take much pressure. I was the youngest in the team and sometimes, I was nervous. But, coach would always calm me down,” he disclosed. “It’s just football. Results will come, just keep playing your game,” Marquez would often lift the spirits of the young defender.

However, the youngster’s bond with Marquez is not restricted to matters of club only. “He’s always available for a talk. Even when I was with the national team, he spoke with me. After my national debut against Oman, the coach called and we discussed the mistakes and the good things,” Akash Mishra reminisced.

He also played in the 0-6 drubbing against UAE in an International friendly, which was followed by a substitute appearance in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers against Qatar.

“I could only play 16 minutes against Qatar but coach Marquez was optimistic my time would come. He has helped me a lot. He’s always there to support the younger players, be it me, or [Rohit] Danu, Asish [Rai] or Hitesh [Sharma]. During the ISL, he would hold special individual sessions with us and point out the good and bad from our training and match videos,” he said.

It is this connection between the coach and the team that made Hyderabad FC click in the 2020-21 season, feels the left-back. “There is no difference between a foreigner, a senior and a junior player at the club. If you are good enough, you give your 100%, you are old enough to play,” Mishra remembered Marquez saying to him.

It was this philosophy on which Hyderabad FC built their season and buried the blushes of a bottom-placed finish from the campaign before.

That, however, was not good enough for a playoffs berth as Hyderabad FC finished at the fifth spot in the table, two points far from a top-four berth and the knockouts round. For Akash Mishra though, it was a stellar debut campaign as it was for his full-back partner Asish Rai. Both had come from the ranks at AIFF’s developmental team, Indian Arrows.

Akash recalls his time there with much fondness. “It (Indian Arrows) played a very big role, not just for me. If you ask any other player, they will also speak highly of the programme. The time with the Arrows gave us exposure. We got the experience of playing top-flight teams in the I-League,” he says.

At Arrows, Akash first started playing as a left-back under the tutelage of Floyd Pinto. As a teenager, he played as a centre-back at the U Dream Academy, where he met former India International Mahesh Gawli. The 19-year-old credited his football dream and success to Gawli, a centre-back and one of India’s finest during his prolonged career. To Akash, Gawli is second to only parents.

“After my parents, I listen to him. When I joined the U Dream academy, I was not very professional. But, he helped me not just with football but also in my personal life,” he stated.

“From defending to attack, from passing to heading the ball, whatever I have learnt, I have learned from him. Whoever I am today, I owe it to him.”

Akash Mishra began his career as a centre-back and the reason behind it is partly because of his penchant for Sergio Ramos. With Hyderabad FC last season, Akash registered only one assist but topped most defending charts. He also attempted nine shots in the season, two of which were on target. Akash also completed 34 crosses, 13 fewer than his teammate and right-back Asish Rai.

The starlet revealed that he intends to contribute more towards building and finishing attacks in the upcoming 2021-22 campaign. However, he also expressed that for him, defending comes first.

Having said that, Akash Mishra agrees that the influence of full-backs is gradually growing and he needs to adapt. Citing the recently concluded Euro 2020 as a case point, he said, “We saw in the Euros, full-backs played major roles in building attacks for their teams. Most full-backs made overlapping runs and created 2 vs 1 situation in the wings. That’s something I would love to do.”

Manolo Marquez’s system uses full-backs heavily on the flanks with Akash and Asish tasked to make overlapping runs and also move into the in-field when finding enough space. This is one area the Nizams’ defender felt he needs to work on ahead of the upcoming season. It is also why he is in awe of Luke Shaw‘s goal in the Euro 2020 final between England and Italy.

However, scoring goals would not be his burden to bear in the upcoming ISL season as Hyderabad FC have already secured the signings of Bartholomew Ogbeche and Edu Garcia. Akash is excited about these new signings and is already looking forward to the season. Although the Nizams have made two marvellous attacking signings, Mishra said he is happier by Joao Victor’s two-year contract extension.

The Brazilian midfielder, Akash said, was his favourite overseas star at the club last season. “I would love to read his mind. The way he reads the game and his ability to find small spaces is brilliant. I really want to learn much from him. His ability to close down gaps and positioning sense is another level. Glad he is returning for two more years with us,” he added.

He also hoped that fans would return to the stadium for ISL 2021-22. “You backed us last season. The messages we got before and after the games, it really helped us to give more on the field,” Akash said.

“Hope to see you soon in the stadium. We will always give our best and try and make you proud,” he signed off.

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