Jo Paul Ancheri probably feels a shiver of distaste each time he finds himself at Chennai's Nehru Stadium. It was here, 15 years ago, that the versatile footballer from Kerala, minutes after coming off India's bench in the semifinal of the South Asian Games football tournament, twisted his knee after catching his toe in a dent on the ground.

It was to be the first of a series of injuries that would regularly interrupt Ancheri's career, and ultimately bring it to a premature end. “I had four operations on my knees,” he says.

Now, at 35, Ancheri is a year into his stint as coach at the Mohun Bagan Football Academy, a residential football school in Durgapur, full of bright under-19s hoping to break into the club's senior team. Last week, the Academy team was in Chennai for the VP Sathyan Memorial All India football tournament. Ancheri's boys demonstrated an impressive level of talent, all slick, inventive attacking play, but it lost all three of its group games.

Despite the results, Ancheri says the trip to Chennai has done his wards a lot of good. “They've been stuck in Durgapur for the last three months. Now, they're happy they've come outside because it's a change for them, and they're free. Otherwise — same food, same practice. Players should enjoy the game.”

His players have also gained valuable exposure, he says. “In the match against ICF, we got at least six chances in the first half, but the inexperience in one-on-one situations showed. And then, after playing well, they suddenly conceded a goal. Mentally, they couldn't recover after that,” he says. “That mental strength will come only with more tournaments. How long can you practise against the same players? You have to get match experience, match exposure, so that you can learn from your mistakes.”

It is the precedence accorded to training and playing practice games in unfamiliar environments that Ancheri credits for Bob Houghton's (relative) success with the national team.

“He's conducting training camps in Europe, in Barcelona and other places. Good fields, and good atmosphere for training. Here, the grounds are bad. The only good one is Fatorda in Goa. They also play matches against European teams. When they play against Asian teams such as Qatar or Iran, they don't have any problem, because the thinking is — if we can play against the Europeans, we can play against these players. Earlier, we used to feel intimidated by the stronger Asian teams.”

Had Ancheri escaped the recurring injuries that dogged his playing days, he might well have been part of Houghton's early squads. “In the end, I had to retire because of all the injuries. Even in 2006, Bob Houghton called me to attend his camp, but once I got there I couldn't recover my fitness in time. I tried very hard but it was of no use. After that too, I went to play for Viva Kerala, but before going to the Durand Cup I sustained a calf muscle injury. Then I thought, that's it, enough.”

Right through his career, pain was a constant companion.

“After injury, I thought I was finished. But I was determined. I started practise, practise… running, running… and when there was pain, I started practising despite it and got used to it. Mentally, I was fully fit. If you're 60 per cent fit, you have to make up the remaining 40 per cent mentally. If not for my mental strength, I wouldn't be here now. My career would have ended long ago.”

As it happened, Ancheri enjoyed a productive career that saw him play for all of India's top clubs and captain the national team. Thanks to the insistence of Uzbek coach Rustam Akramov, who was in charge of the Indian team in 1995, Ancheri learned to fulfil a number of roles — striker, winger, central midfielder and centre back.

Of these, it was playing up front that Ancheri enjoyed most. “In the stopper position, you can do a good job for 89 minutes, but if you make a small mistake in the last minute which leads to a goal, everything you did before that is gone. As a striker, even if you play horribly for 89 minutes and score a goal in the final minute, you are a hero.”

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