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Indian Football: Down the memory lane – Mohun Bagan’s first NFL win in 1997-98

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After firing Amal Dutta it was TK Chathunni who led the Mariners to their first NFL title…

The 1997-98 season is special in the hearts of the Mohun Bagan fans for the Mariners won their first National Football League (NFL) title.

After an average season in 1996-97 where they won just the Bordoloi trophy, Mohun Bagan roped in Amal Dutta as the coach.

Dutta implemented the famous ‘Diamond System’ where he fielded his team in a 3-4-3 formation, where a defensive blocker in front of a three-man backline would give the shape of a diamond in midfield. 

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A host of star players, namely Basudeb Mondal, Debjit Ghosh, Hemanta Dora etc also jumped ship from East Bengal to Bagan to form one of the formidable teams at that point.

But apart from winning the Calcutta Football League (CFL) and DCM Trophy, his tactics could not win a major trophy. In the Federation Cup, East Bengal humiliated his side 4-1 whereas, in the Durand Cup, IM Vijayan and Jo Paul Ancheri’s FC Kochin thrashed them 3-1 in the finals. Even in IFA Shield and Rovers Cup, the Mariners got ousted in the group stages and semi-finals respectively. 

Hence, before the National Football League (NFL) started, Mohun Bagan officials almost hijacked TK Chathunni from a stubborn Salgaocar. The Goan club opted to go for the legal route which prevented the Keralite from sitting in the dugout in the first couple of matches. 

Without their head coach on the reserve bench, Bagan went down 1-0 to Air India in Mumbai in their campaign opener. Chima Okorie was a forlorn figure upfront as Air India did not allow the guests to take control in midfield. 

TK Chathunni

Their next challenge was against a Churchill Brothers side, who had also faltered 3-0 in their first game against JCT. Dipendu Biswas drew early blood for the hosts. Mohun Bagan was playing scintillating football but during the final five minutes of the first half, the Goan side came back strongly and through Rashit Jamal found the equaliser. In the second half, both teams were fighting tooth and nail but just after the hour-mark Okorie restored Bagan’s lead, which eventually became the difference.

Against Indian Bank, the Mariners won by a slender margin of 1-0 but their form was far from assuring before taking on arch-rivals East Bengal in the next match. The Red and Golds were also not in their best of shape as they lost to Kochin, drew against JCT and only won against Churchill Brothers as the Red Machines gave them a walkover due to disputes regarding the ball to be used. 

In the derby, Amit Das, Satyajit Chatterjee and Basudeb Mondal played brilliantly in midfield. Under pressure, East Bengal keeper Kalyan Choubey was given marching orders after he handed the ball outside the box to deny Biswas a goal-scoring opportunity. As a result, Renedy Singh was sacrificed and reserve keeper Rajnarayan Mukherjee was thrown into action. 

Minutes later, Mohun Bagan opened the scoring through Okorie. East Bengal equalised in the 60th minute but in the very next minute, Biswas restored the lead after latching on to a corner by Das. Mukherjee misjudged the flight of the delivery and the striker made him pay. Mohun Bagan won the bragging rights on that night and they did this without their coach on the bench. 

Chathunni returned in the next match against Dempo and his team drew 1-1. They strung together an unbeaten run of 10 matches before falling 1-0 to Salgaocar. Although it was a home match, the fixture was played in Delhi due to unforeseen circumstances and apart from this loss, it is worth noting the green and maroons did not lose a single match at their own backyard. 

They boasted a pretty good away record as well as they defeated Mahindra United in Bombay, Salgaocar at Margao and even a start-studded FC Kochin in Kerala. They lost only one away game in the season.

Mohun Bagan 1997

Meanwhile, East Bengal had shrugged off their poor form and were giving tough competition to Bagan at the top of the table. They shocked JCT in Ludhiana and a last-gasp Baichung Bhutia winner against Dempo in the penultimate round threw the title race wide open. 

The next day, Mohun Bagan were set to face Dempo in a tough away fixture. Chathunni could not field Basudeb Mondal as he had already played 40 official matches that season and chose not to include Okorie in the lineup as he was just one match away from suspension. Much to the dismay of fans in Kolkata, Francis Silveira and Gautam Ghosh fired Dempo to a 2-0 lead at halftime.  

But in the second half, Chatterjee brought out his best at the centre of the park and pulled one back in the 63rd minute. The Bagan players left no stone unturned to find the equaliser and in the 87th minute their perseverance finally paid off when RP Singh found the back of the net. 

They needed just a point in the final match against Mahindra United to lift their first NFL title. Around 70,000 spectators thronged the Salt Lake stadium. A helicopter was hired to shower flowers on Bagan players before the start of the match. Okorie continued his brilliant form and scored a hat-trick to seal the match in favour of Mohun Bagan. 

The Nigerian was adjudged the best player of the tournament but missed out on the golden boot by a single goal to Raman Vijayan of FC Kochin. 

But Chathunni’s reign was short-lived in Kolkata as he was immediately shown the door after Bagan lost to Salgaocar in the Super Cup. Amal Dutta was reinstated as the coach and the maverick tactician then led Bagan to a famous 3-1 win against East Bengal in the Federation Cup final to redeem himself from the previous 4-1 humiliation. 

All in all, it was a great season for Mohun Bagan, losing just two games in the NFL in the entire season, a very special memory for the Bagan faithful.

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