Nostalgia Which were the top football teams? Why was there a craze about league matches? How did the Madras Circle of SBI beat the formidable Calcuttans led by Chuni Goswami? R. Mohanakrishnan recounts

F ollowing an accident, I developed a deep dislike for cricket. While batting on a matting wicket at P.S. High School in 1957, an unusually quick delivery knocked out two of my incisor teeth. Around the same time, members of Mylapore Football Club (MFC) began to practise at the school grounds and I shifted my loyalties to the game.

While these footballers practiced aiming at the goalpost, I would stand behind it and gather balls that eluded the goal-keeper and the goalpost. After two years of this voluntary service, I caught the coach's eye. In 1959 — when I was only 16 years old — I was inducted into the Club as a goalie.

In the 1950s, MFC was a good team but one that always stayed at a level just short of the big league. The fullness of Madras football was experienced only in the senior division, dominated by Wimco, ICF, Southern Railways and Minerva Sports Club. With the Netaji Sports Club, a senior division team, rolling out the red carpet to me, I was able to watch these teams with the eyes of a competitor.

Centre-forward Thangaraj, who represented India, gave the Wimco attack teeth that often chewed the opposition to pulp. Adept at executing scissors kicks and dribbling the ball at head-spinning speed, he combined beautifully with side-forward Williams. They were called “the deadly duo of Wimco”.

Left-extreme Simon Sunder Raj, who played for Southern Railways, was another darling of the spectators. He took his opponents by surprise; he would suddenly come from “nowhere”, move across the goal mouth and take a shot, sometimes, with a well-directed and powerful header, at the goalpost.

The huge crowds, numbering 5,000, that turned out for every league match at Nehru Stadium hero-worshipped the best players. Balaji — who would be present at each of these matches — rose to stardom by being just an enthusiastic spectator (his passionate interest in football and other sports in Madras was for long a subject of curiosity for the media).

Massive betting went hand in hand with these closely-followed league games. From the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, league matches at the Stadium among the top teams — Wimco, SBI, Southern Railways, ICF and RBI — brought 10,000 spectators with betting on a massive scale.

Considering this mammoth following, clashes between these Titans were reserved for Saturdays and Sundays.

The Madras football fan was balanced in the appraisal of his team's performances. Unlike the majority of the fans in Calcutta — where football was religion and often stirred deep-seated passions among its aficionados, he was not given to extreme displays of emotion. He received his team's failures with a shrug of his shoulders. In contrast, the Calcutta fan would ruthlessly pull down his heroes from their pedestals following a solitary failure.

Fuelled by expectations, Calcutta dominated various levels of the sport. The annual SBI Inter-Circle tournament was no exception.

The Madras SBI Circle team was a great unit, but its rise to ultimate glory was often thwarted by the Calcutta SBI Circle.

In a spirited display, the Madras players broke the deadlock in 1967, when they beat a formidable Calcutta team — with Chuni Goswami and Bidyut Majumder — to become the SBI inter-circle champions. Following this victory,

I received an offer to play for the East Bengal Club, which I politely turned down. The reason was simple. I was living in the heyday of football in Madras. And, I knew it.

As told to

PRINCE FREDERICK

I REMEMBER In 1970, the crucial match — that would decide the winner in the senior division — between SBI and Southern Railways was played at Nehru Stadium. Fans cheered their respective teams with gusto. SBI had 18 points. With 19 points, Southern Railways needed just a draw to win the championship. At one goal each, the match headed for a draw. In the last minute — when all hope had drained out of SBI's supporters — left-inside Krishnan scored and won the match for SBI.

R. MOHANAKRISHNAN (known as R. Mohan) Born in 1943, he represented Tamil Nadu in national football tournaments as goal-keeper from 1964 to 1972. In 1965, he received the best goalkeeper award from the Tamil Nadu Football Association. He was a mainstay of the SBI football team from 1963 to 1977. From 1977 to 2002 — as vice-president of SBI Staff association — he engaged in various trade union activities; since his retirement, he works as a full-time social worker.

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