The last time a team outside of the big three won the Calcutta Football League (CFL), Jahar Das was 11 years old. Eastern Railways romped to the title that season, but the result wasn’t a shocker, at the time. This was 1958. The Big Three were big but not quite invincible. Plus, Eastern Railways had PK Banerjee spearheading their forward line, a man whose name commands reverence in the maidan even today.
“I spoke to him a few hours after our final game of the season [against George Telegraph],” Das, says. “He congratulated us, but also told us the work isn’t done. It has to continue.”
Das, a former striker at Mohun Bagan, and Peerless’ CFL title winning coach this season, is magnanimous is his manner, and very generous in passing on the credit for Peerless’ success to those around him, people who had contributed to launching them to the title. “Much like a good table, a club’s success is built on four strong platforms. The first is good administration. The second is good players. The third is good management and coaching and the fourth is the availability of good resources,” he says.
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“Our administration backed us right from the beginning to create a good team. They even procured a good ground at a fairly high cost for training and games. They never interfered with the football practices, or the selection,” he says, before launching a gentle jibe at his more acclaimed rivals. “This is very unlike the big clubs where owners and administration make demands about the first team. Here we were given suggestions, but if we declined our reasons were accepted.”
Das’ point about lack of interference from the administration is massively underlined by the troubles the big two have faced in the league this year — almost all of it of their own making. Where Mohun Bagan’s massively inflated but ultimately unintegrated squad struggled from the word go, East Bengal’s twin ownership model has created an impasse few can negotiate.
Even now, while Das, his players and the club are celebrating their record breaking success, an official announcement by the Indian Football Association (IFA) is yet to be made. The reasons for this are complex and yet quite baseless.
East Bengal refused to turn up for their final game of the season against Calcutta Customs, citing not enough players to make up a match day squad. It was a game they needed to win by a margin of seven goals, to win the title — a hurdle that could anyway be too far for a team whose highest margin of victory has been a 3-0 drubbing of Aryan. According to East Bengal’s official communication a lack of coordination between the administration and the IFA that resulted in East Bengal’s coach, as well as several players, taking off on vacation. The IFA considered the game a forfeit and awarded the points to Calcutta Customs. The official announcement is supposed to be made after the Durga Puja break.
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Regardless of the peripheral confusion, as far as Das is concerned, Peerless did their job. They did it the right way and did it with rewards. Last season, the team had fallen short of the title at the final run, Mohun Bagan edging them out by four points to win it. “Coming so close last season perhaps proved to the players that the quality was there, it was just a matter of channeling it,” Das says.
A shakeup in the coaching setup could have been reason for a drop in results, but Das isn’t the type to cause division. He acknowledged the good work done by his predecessor and used it to forge his own way forward.
There was an initial blip. Peerless drew their first game of the season, and lost a high scoring match to Aryans in the second. But the game changer was their third game, against Mohun Bagan at the Bagan ground on the 5th of August. It was the game, Das thinks, gave the players belief and convinced him that they could win the title.
Bagan at the time has just come off a Durand Cup opener and had looked solid and formidable as a unit — despite the team having almost no pre-season to speak of. Peerless destroyed them 3-0. It wasn’t just the scoreline that caused shockwaves, it was the manner in which it was achieved. This wasn’t a smash and grab job, this was calculated annihilation. Peerless controlled the play, the game and kept Bagan on the backfoot for almost the entire 90 minutes.
“As a coach I can always pat myself on the back and say the training has always been exemplary,” Das laughs, “But the training has to show on the field. The players have to put it into practice. We analysed all our opponents games, not just the big teams but all of them. I would watch the Sadhna TV broadcast, and note the things they were doing. We would record it and replay it. And the players also put our strategies into practice.”
On the field, Peerless’ foreign additions were massive influences in their triumph. Liberian striker Ansumana Kromah, ended up the season’s top scorer with 13 goals, more than half of Peerless’ tally. An erstwhile Mohun Bagan reject, his goals either side of halftime started the demolition job that led to the title.
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Peerless’ carefree, attacking football had shades of the I-League winning Aizawl FC team, one that Jahar again had a role in assimilating. Before Khalid Jamil’s tactical nous took them to the title, Jahar was the man in charge and his ability to spot talent, pick young players and even local players proved the vital ingredient to success. His abilities haven’t changed, despite the change in colours. Players like Kromah, the Trinidadian veteran Anthony Wolfe and Dipendu Dowary were the building blocks around whom he sprinkled young talent.
PK Banerjee’s words though are vital for Das’ view for the future. The league title may be locked up but Peerless have no concrete way ahead. “Peerless group isn’t a football group,” Das says, “they have businesses and football was just a hobby. But, with this title there is a talk and a desire among them to register for the I-League second division, and then…” For now though, Das can kick back, knowing his team have done something special, something only a 11-year old could’ve dreamt up.
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