1956, the year the stars failed to shine

A COUPLE of days before Bengal's opening match in the current National Football Championship for the Santosh Trophy, coach Shabbir Ali quietly cautioned against the folly of underestimating his side sans players from East Bengal, Mohun Bangan and Tollygunge Agragami, the three National Football League team. History endorses this sane, humble approach.
Forty-five years ago, in Trivandrum's packed Police Stadium, Bengal could have been excused for being cock-a-hoop with confidence before their semi-final against Bombay. Their line-up was made up of 10 internationals and one uncapped player in goalkeeper Chatterjee of Mohun Bagan. Confined to the reserves were such international stars as Mewalal, Sattar, Sanat Sett and a soon-to-be leading light, Chuni Goswami.
In contrast, Bombay had in Joe D'Sa and Neville D'Souza players who just made up the India team. So the odds were heavy against the 1954 champions who had lost to Assam early the next year. Indeed, the Trivandrum correspondent of a Bombay newspaper taunted a young Bombay journalist: "How many goals do you want to take?" It was not clear whether he got cold feet when asked for odds - a rupee against a rupee was all that he offered - or if he had some premonition that prevented him from putting his money beside his tongue.
Eight of the Bengal team in the semi-final going on the Olympics in Melbourne three months later, while only two from Bombay Neville D'Souza and S S Narayan, did. Of course, the Bombay pair, perhaps, contributed to India's fine showing at Melbourne as much as did the large Bengal contingent.
Yet, before the match, there was little to justify Bombay's optimism. They had huffed and fuffed to victory in the replayed quarter-final against Delhi, thanks to Narayan's brilliance, on the same day that Bengal had brushed aside Madhya Pradesh. But manager Fali Chinoy quietly had whipped up the determination of a very harmonious Bombay team.
Chinoy struck a chord in his boys. He believed in them, and as at Madras two years earlier, he evoked a response from the boys to put their best foot forward. The Bombay team, under Chinoy, always demonstrated great heart, if not skill to be spoken of in the same breath with rivals from Bengal and Mysore. This trait more than compensated for lack of many others.
Bombay were still grappling with the finer nuances of the third-back game when the roving centre-half formation was more in vogue in Indian football, a formation that Bengal adopted. Bombay's recognition of their deficiencies proved a blessing in disguise. Under Bengal's relentless pressure, Bombay's defenders, half-backs and inside-forwards compacted into an unyielding bulwark.
Skipper and centre-back Soli Poonawalla functioned around his penalty area, wing backs Bhaskaran and David Solomon shackled Kannaiyan and P K Banerjee out of the match, Franklyn D'Souza and George Fernandes were totally focussed on defence and sacrificed thoughts of advancing in support to their forwards, inside-forwards Neville D'Souza and Nagaraj played close to the half-backs, leaving Joe D'Sa, Linky Grostate and Pavithran to shoulder most of the burden of the attack.
Paradoxically, Bengal's "superiority" turned out to be their undoing. They kept going up against an impenetrable wall of inspired resistance or a blind alley they had been shepherded into by the funnelling Bombay defence. At the end of the first half - matches were over an hour in those days - there was no goal.
Bengal switched their flankmen. But P K Banerjee, who had been completely put off by the Mephistopheles-looking Solomon before the interval, had no better luck against the cool and collected Bhaskaran. Nor did Kannaiyan make the switch fruitful. And Narayan had his quietest hour in the entire championship.
And then, 10 minutes into the second half, Bombay struck. Neville snatched the ball away from Abdul Rehman, pushed it out to D'Sa on the right wing. The latter made ground, cut inside and laid the ball right for darting Grostate to whip it along the ground past the towering Chatterjee.
Bengal had about 20 minutes to retrieve lost ground, to redeem themselves. But Bombay were in no mood to let go of their hard-earned advantage. With each passing, tense moment, they beat back surging Bengal to gain the shore and a magnificent victory.
In those last 20 minutes, a rare fleeting display of sportsmanship etched a deep impression. One Bombay attempt at goal flew five yards wide of an upright into the vast area behind. It was not a Bengal player who showed the anxiety to get the ball back and restart play. It was Neville who ran all of 20 yards behind the goal, picked up and kicked the ball to Chatterjee so that Bengal could resume their search for the equaliser from the goal kick without precious seconds being lost. Then there was no Fair Play award.

Bombay: S S Narayan; M C Bhaskaran, Soli Poonawalla and David Solomon; Franklyn D'Souza and George Fernandes; Joe D'Sa, Neville D'Souza, Linky Grostate and Pavithran.
Bengal: S Chatterjee; Suhasis Guha and Abdul Rehman; Kempaiah, Abdul Salam and Nikhil Nandy; P K Banerjee, Samar Banerjee, Krishna Pal, J Kittu and Kannaiyan.

by K. Bhaskaran
appeared in The Mid-Day on November 12, 2001.

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