For almost two years – long stretches of 2015 and ‘16 – football took a backseat in defender Adil Khan’s life. Financially drained out and left to deal with a career-threatening ligament injury, it was rehabilitation, and managing day-to-day expenses that featured high on the Goan’s priority list.

Taking into account the travails of an average Indian footballer, this was a recipe for a perennial downward spiral. There have been players who have fallen on the wayside from that position. Luckily, Khan had a supporting family to turn to for help, “After my PCL (Posterior cruciate ligament) injury, I was out on the sidelines for more than a year,” Khan told The Field.

“It was difficult to manage my expenses as I was not playing. I had no income at the time. Fortunately, family members – my brother in particular – offered me support when the chips were down. Those were tough times,” he added.

Despite being one of the most experienced Indians on the circuit, Khan went looking for opportunities. There were stints with Bharat FC and second division outfit Lonestar Kashmir, low-profile clubs after having cut his teeth as a professional with Sporting Goa and Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan.

Khan explains: “At the time, getting back into the groove was important. I had not played for a long time and had to earn match practice. The stature of those clubs didn’t matter to me as they instantly welcomed me into their setup.”

The comeback

Adil Khan, apart from being one of the key members in defence, has also contributed with goals for FC Pune City | Image credit: ISL
Adil Khan, apart from being one of the key members in defence, has also contributed with goals for FC Pune City | Image credit: ISL

It was a will to hit the ground running once again, but Khan was on the comeback trail. Familiar surroundings acted as a tonic to his career, which was on the crossroads. Goan club Churchill Brothers came calling, and picked him for the 2016-’17 I-League season.

Khan helped the side finish a respectable sixth at the end of the season. There, he was marshalling the defence with aplomb and scoring goals from set-plays, a facet not every defender is blessed with, “Not many people know that I was a forward during my younger days. Then, I was tried in a number of positions, including midfield and full-back. So, goal-scoring is something that I honed for a long time.”

“Moreover, it is about getting in the right position in the area, which comes through experience.”

That bit of versatility would come to aid him when game time was all that mattered to him – at Lonestar, he was deployed in midfield. In what was a shot in his arm, FC Pune City came calling during the first pick of ISL draft – a surprise move at the time – and there was no looking back. Pune’s faith in Khan has reaped rich dividends as he has now established himself as one of the key members of the side, making several telling contributions.

Bucking a very poor trend

The 29-year-old had missed the transition phase of the ISL. From a glorious exhibition contest featuring yesteryear greats, the division had become serious business, for the Indian contingent in particular. “During the first season [Khan was with Delhi Dynamos], there was a distance between the foreign stars and the Indian players. The Indians would chat among themselves. But now, that’s not the case,” said Khan, when asked on how the hosts have bridged the communication gap with their counterparts.

Khan got limited time with the Dynamos but at Pune, he has established himself as one of coach Ranko Popovic’s main men. The SESA academy product seamlessly blended into the setup, regaining full fitness, a new-found determination. Well...even a rugged new hairstyle, perhaps signalling a new chapter in his career.

Pune now stands on the cusp of qualifying for the play-offs, “When I came into the side, that [reaching the last-four] was one of one of the foremost objectives. In previous seasons, Pune have got off to great starts but missed out. I am hoping that would change,” he said.

Pune are currently second in the table, behind table-toppers Bengaluru FC, who have already sealed a play-off place in their debut season. The tide may have passed and Khan’s troubles now seem like a distant memory, but he remains hooked to his Goan roots, which he attributes for his love for the game. As for hauling himself back to the big stage...that could be pinned down to his willpower and passion.