Image Credits: Ajith
Upbeat and urbane for much of his youth career, labelled too weak for the beautiful game, Ajith Kumar would prove all his doubters wrong by becoming vital cog in Chennai City’s backline.
Football runs deep in Ajith’s family.
Chennai City’s left back Ajith Kumar has revealed how he inherited his love of the game from his football-mad father Kamaraj while being raised in Chennai and how he dreamed of becoming a professional footballer and playing in the nation’s top division league.
Football – A family affair
Having a father, who himself an accomplished football player was a thrill, and Ajith grew up admiring his dad and his skills. As a child, he went everywhere with a ball. The neighbours in Thirumangalam, Anna Nagar, where Ajith grew up, rarely saw him without one.
“I'm from a football family,” Ajith says.
“We all used to play together, including my dad, my brothers, my uncle and me.”
His father has been behind him every step of the way.
“My dad had a big part in my football career as he was taking me to football training every day.”
His mother, Malathi, too has made unsurpassed sacrifices ensuring that Ajith always got the support he needed.
Formative years: Setting the stage
Earlier in life, Ajith seemed to have a lot going for him.
At the age of 9, he enrolled himself in a CPWD Residence Football Academy, where his father was also one of the members and did represent his academy at various levels. During this period, he also started playing for Disha Sports Academy, a prominent football academy in Chennai.
He said his performances in the tournament got him selected as one of top 50 footballer and sponsorship and ultimately paving the way for a strong beginning to his career in the beautiful game.
Ajith credits a lot of his skill to his coaches D.Sekar, Chandrasekar and Thoams, who helped him improve since he joined DSA.
“During my time at DSA, we won many titles and that’s when I truly started admiring football more than ever and wanted to make it a professional career. From there onwards, I have developed huge passion for the sport and started practicing regularly.”
In eighth grade, Ajith decided to dedicate himself to football. He began practicing year-round, committing himself to doing “whatever it took, whatever was necessary, to play,” he says.
Ajith, who had done his schooling till 10th standard in Kendriya Vidyalaya, Chennai said, though he was a regular starter in midfield, he also often played as a goalkeeper during penalties. He also played in Under-13 Nationals. He says that he was a moderate player during his early school days as he felt he didn’t get as much exposure as he thought he should have.
However, after joining Madras Christian College Higher Secondary School, Chennai from 11th standard, his football career really took a fruitful turn when he began training under the guidance of Jebasingh.
Ajith played predominantly in midfield, he took part in the School Games Federation of India (SGFI) Nationals Under-19. Then he got enrolled in Madras Christian College (MCC) and played for the college team.
Collegiate years: How Soosairaj helped him find his footing
Ajith describes his college days a bittersweet experience – mixture of excitement and nervousness.
In most of the collegiate games, Ajith played in midfield along with Michael Soosairaj.
Ajith expressed how Soosairaj helped him out in his time at college. His words were of acknowledgement to the ATK player for his support towards him.
“At the time when I needed the most support, Soosai anna, came and gave me confidence.”
In his first year, he was optimistic of getting the University team.
He had even shown glimpses and live up to the hype that had followed his scintillating display against Loyola College in the Inter-zone final netting two goals in 3-2 defeat, but no avail.
Second time luck also seemingly the same so, but Soosai came as saviour once again, giving Ajith his spot.
The woman behind the man
In the summer of 2015, Ajith was at a crossroads.
Although he continued playing football through his college days, but on his mind he did not quite sure about where his career was going, and he was on verge of quitting football
It could all have been different for Ajith in all the wrong ways had he not met the love of his life, but thanks to her, he saved himself from himself and kept playing.
Speaking of the impact his girlfriend Pracyntha had on him, Ajith said: “I always have had my family support but during my college days I stayed in college hostel. I often fall sick after consuming hostel food. Not my former self; with dip in form – I was done mentally.”
“But she helped me realise how important football was for me. She has motivated me by saying: ‘don’t waste your talent. This is not the time to quit football, just try to go as far as you can and then see the options.’”
Suddenly, football and Pracyntha was all that mattered to him.
In ealry 2016, Ajith saw his big break in senior division emerge through Coach Assan as Viva Chennai swooped to secure his services.
In the following year, Ajith played vital role in helping MCC capturing the South Zone title and subsequently attended Santhosh Trophy trials. He was also regularly played for Viva Chennai and Chennai United in the local league.
His life could have turned out a lot different or worse, but his girlfriend Pracyntha played a huge role in his career and the player he has become today.
‘They said I was too weak; wouldn't make it to the I-League’
After finishing college, I-League was an ideal place to showcase his talent. His dream of playing professional football seemed a long shot. A really long shot.
“It has always been my dream to play in the I-League,” he tells.
But no one took Ajith very seriously. He kept hearing how he was too weak and skinny to play top league football.
“There wasn’t a single person that spoke positively about my chances of making it to the top league. They said I wouldn’t make it – cause I am weak, not strong enough to make it big.”
“But I had an unrivalled passion for game, and a hunger to make it to the top.”
And lady luck did eventually shine upon the youngster as he was soon signed by I-League outfit Chennai City FC.
Read: A Dream Dashed, and Another Delivered: The Incredible Journey of Indiaﾒs U-15 Coach Kanan Priolkar
And then Chennai City came calling
“When I was plying my trade in the CFA Senior Division League, (CCFC goalkeeper coach) Sathish Kumar informed the club is about to conduct trials in June . But, I wasn’t sure of making it as he had a hairline crack on ankle.”
“I thought of giving the selection a miss. However, I attended it and did my best despite the discomfort I had. The trials went on for five days, with Akbar and (former Chief Scout) Jordi Gris overseeing the proceedings. It ended up being fruitful as Chennai City picked me and offered a contract. In case I hadn’t gone for it, I would have been a Chartered Accountant,” he said.
Ajith arrived at his new club a little behind time to join the pre-season, as he had to complete his college matches, he declared his ambition to prove himself in a big league as a key reason.
Chennai City were one of the rising clubs in India and it was undoubtedly a big move for a man who had been playing in senior division just two years previously. Having turned 21 around the time, Ajith knew that he would have to improve his performances further to earn the adulation of the coach and supporters. And, boy, did he do that.
After adjusting to his surroundings, the youngster wasted no time in stamping his mark on proceedings at the club.
Coach Akbar Nawas was the first to make Ajith feel he was wanted and that he could excel in big-time football.
Ajith is, and has always been, an attack-minded midfielder.
“I was a mid-fielder before and a right-foot strong player. I have also played as a forward and even as a goalkeeper as my father was a goalie during his heydays. Coach Akbar Nawas made me play left back in a one-off practice match and showed confidence that I would do well in this position.”
Getting along; learning lessons and being patient
Visibly leaner and quick-learner, Ajith went from strength to strength in the I-League.
“I love attacking football. But after joining Chennai City, I had to start from the scratch, learning the nuances of how attack from defence – In attack, you can make many mistakes still get away with mistakes but in defense each and every mistake is counted as valuable.”
“If you attack more, you have less chance of defending.”
On a more technical level, Ajith has quickly developed an understanding of a new position at the back. The hands-on senior players was helpful, as was the trust shown in him by Coach Akbar Nawas.
“The experience of foreign players in the team was at another level. I was friends with everyone and learned valuable lessons,” says Ajith.
As a footballer patience is more important than you might think.
He describes: “While defending, I don’t have much patience. Easily, I would get beaten up by a striker. It took me some time to really grasp and apply the art of patience to my defense.”
Match by match he gained experience.
He said, “I started correcting my mistakes from the very first match by watching videos and analysing my performance. This was in addition to the team analysis. I realised that if I miss a cross while overlapping, it gives the opponent a chance to counter-attack. I made sure not to make the mistake in the next game.”
Studying Maldini and the art of defending
Ajith claims to have tried to model his game on watching football’s great Paolo Maldini, Liverpool’s Andrew Robertson and Real Madrid’s Marcelo Vieira.
“I started watching Paolo Maldini and his art of defending. I also admire Robertson and Marcelo. I used to watch their videos of the seasons at home so I get a glimpse of really good understanding of how they are playing. It was really inspiring for me to look at and take notes and I want to know how they do it.”
Turning heads, raising eyebrows
All this effort to work on his game bore fruit for Ajith as he executed perfectly what he learned to get the Hero of the Match award in a game against Gokulam Kerala, the match he considers the most meaningful of his career so far.
And, in a match against Bengaluru FC, the way Ajith refused to give even an inch to opponent forward Udanta Singh, an Indian footballer, impressed everyone.
Ajith appeared in each of the 20 league matches during Chennai City’s title-winning run in 2018-19. Through the course of that period, the local lad also turned out three times each in the Durand Cup and Super Cup for the Akbar Nawas-managed team.
He understood that to get into the position where his technical prowess could begin to shine through, he would have to track back, to tackle, be patient. So that’s what he did, and it soon became a new element to his game, one that had been previously lacking, he later revealed.
“The most challenging part of my first year at the club was learning the nuances of how to perfect the balance of both attack and defence.”
In the following season, he vastly improved his defensive skill that saw him topping the highest challenges made during the season is because of patience.
What’s so peculiar about him is that is his ability in possession, how comfortable and confident he has become in making himself available to receive the ball from the back four and play it to forward effectively to start attacks, that has been the notable improvement in his game.
The evolution of Ajith into this more rounded, varied player — Ajith 2.0, perhaps — will be a source of encouragement to Chennai City, who handed him a new three-year contract extension after winning the historic title winning season.
For him being adaptable is a matter of necessity rather than choice.
“A couple of years ago I wanted to nail down midfield as my position, but I am glad I haven’t done that,” he says.
Playing AFC Cup is a ‘huge achievement’
Ajith termed playing in the AFC Cup is the proudest moment of his life.
“AFC Cup is a prestigious tournament and not everyone gets that chance. I'm eternally grateful for the club giveing me the opportunity to play in the AFC Cup just just my second year of my professional career. A Tamil Nadu-based team, with so many locals in it, being a part of the competition is a huge thing. I can’t describe playing in such an event in words,” exclaimed Ajith whose only assist this term came in the AFC Cup group stage duel against Maziya S&RC (Maldives) in Chennai.
The young defender has been mightily impressive for the Southerners so far and is regarded as one of the best young left-backs in the league now. His rise to prominence is a credit to the precise and shrewd nature of the club’s recruitment methods, driven by Akbar’s rigorous ways.
Ajith has since emphatically proven his doubters wrong. He arrived for nothing but has gone on to become a vital cog in Akbar’ side – he’s taken it all in his stride – ubiquitous in defense, an artisan who has acquired the skill of pugnacity.
Dreaming of India call-up
When asked about his ultimate career goal, he says, “Each one dreams to wear that blue jersey. Each one dreams to play for their country. Each one dreams to be among those eleven on the field. And it’s no different for me. I would like to play for the Senior Nationals team and I am practicing hard to achieve the feat in the coming year.”
He is still evolving, still adapting and still adding new layers to his game. He is a joy to watch on the ball, and now equally impressive off it.
“My only thing is that I try to get better. I want to try and get better.”
He is “jovial”, as his teammates call him. And there is far more still to come.