Want to prove that I’m worthy of staying at this level: Defender Nikhil Poojary
Having been a part of Hero Indian Super League (ISL) side Hyderabad FC since their inception in 2019, Nikhil Poojary has gone on to become an integral part of the team. Having joined the Deccan-based club in 2019 from FC Pune City, Poojary was an ever-present figure for the side in their debut Hero ISL season in 2019-20, becoming the only player to play in all of their 18 games throughout the season.
A versatile player that can operate as a winger or full-back, Poojary made his national team debut in 2017 and has featured eight times for the senior team. His last appearance came during India’s historic goalless draw against Qatar in 2019 during the World Cup 2022 qualifiers, but the Mangaluru-born player has not featured for the Blue Tigers since then.
Poojary is now aiming to keep his spot in the national team after being named by India coach Igor Stimac in the 27-member squad for the upcoming Hero Intercontinental Cup and the SAFF Championship.
"If you ask anybody in the Hero ISL, their dream is to play in the national team. Obviously, the last few years were difficult, but I'm honoured to be back after four full seasons. With whatever minutes I get, I want to prove that I'm worthy of staying at this level," he said in an interaction with the-aiff.com.
After a promising debut season with Hyderabad FC, Poojary featured in just 10 games during the Hero ISL 2020-21 season because of an injury, as the side narrowly missed out on a playoff spot. Poojary bounced back in style as he chipped in with a goal and two assists during Hyderabad FC’s title-winning campaign in Hero ISL 2021-22, playing 19 games.
He missed just one game throughout the Hero ISL 2022-23 season and played a major part in helping his club record a joint-high tally of 12 clean sheets. For a player who started his career as a winger, Poojary displayed that he was beyond capable of playing as a full-back.
"Initially, I played as a winger at HFC. Shifting to right-back was a new experience for me, but my transition was smooth because I had played as a defender at the youth level. During my U-15 days at Mumbai FC under coach Naushad Moosa, he always used to say that every player must know how to play in multiple positions.
"My transition was also made easier by my teammates at Hyderabad FC. I play alongside an experienced Spanish defender (Odei Onaindia). In front of me, I've got one of the best left-footed players in India – Mohammad Yasir. In midfield, there are João (Victor) and Hitesh (Sharma). So, I've become very comfortable at right-back thanks to my coaches and teammates," said Poojary.
During the 2021-22 season, Poojary featured both as a winger and full-back under head coach Manolo Marquez, but Asish Rai’s departure to ATK Mohun Bagan saw the 27-year-old take up the right-back spot ahead of the Hero ISL 2022-23 campaign. His performances at club level drew plaudits from all corners, prompting Stimac to recall Poojary back to the national team camp.
"I'm thankful to the coaching staff and the management as they trusted me to fill in the right-back spot. Personally, I used to be confused about my best position before this year. But now, I think my ideal position will be right-back because I think I can be solid defensively and help in attack as well. Coach Manolo (Marquez) told me that right-back was a suitable position for me,” he revealed.
"Also, coach Igor (Stimac) met me in the Durand Cup last year and told me the same thing that I should start loving the right-back position more. So, after this season, I've become more clear and comfortable about my position," Poojary added.
Despite stiff competition in the squad, Poojary will look to make the most of his chances in the upcoming tournaments for the Indian football team. He was not part of India’s squad during the AFC Asian Cup 2019, but now has another opportunity to prove himself and make the cut for the 2023 edition in Qatar, which will commence in January next year.
"In our team meetings, the coaches and captain (Sunil) Chhetri bhai have stressed that whatever we're doing right now – our diet and training – everything is building up for the Asian Cup. We've got two back-to-back tournaments, so our game-time and recovery will be very crucial. Everybody is taking these matches very seriously to try and make the squad for the Asian Cup," Poojary concluded.