Twenty-three years have passed since, but IM Vijayan still remembers the day vividly. There were 50,000 people in the stands and 10,000 more around the touchline at the Nehru Stadium in Kochi on April 10, 1997. India faced defending champions Iraq in the Nehru Cup semifinals and the referee was reluctant to start the match fearing invasion by the spectators.
The match was played and passed off peacefully as the crowd proved to be a highly disciplined lot. “The atmosphere was electrifying, we were all nervous,” recalls Vijayan. But the man, who kept his cool and took a firm grip over the midfield almost immediately, was Carlton Chapman.
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“We drew 1-1 but lost in the tie-breaker. I won’t forget the way Carlton put us in the lead. He had the ball in the clear on the right and could have sent in a cross. But he cut through with great speed and scored himself. It was typical of Carlton. If he was a fine passer of the ball, then he had equally good ball control also. Often he would make his way through the right like this, catching the opposition rather off guard,” says Vijayan.
The “Golden Deer” of Indian football then paused for a few seconds and said: “I can’t believe Carlton is no more. He had the ability to send accurate passes and had natural control over the ball. Then why couldn’t he have complete control over his own life?” The question from Vijayan, a long-time friend of Chapman, sounded truly desperate.
Having come from Bengaluru, Chapman burst into Indian football in the early 1990s after graduating from the Tata Football Academy (TFA). The Indian football scene was different then. A long list of talented midfielders were in full cry around the country. Savio Medeira was still a huge influence in the Salgaocar midfield, Aqueel Ansari and Khalid Jamil in Mumbai, Tejinder Kumar in Punjab, Tushar Rakshit and Basudeb Mondal in Kolkata were all midfielders dominating the scene. Credit to Chapman, for he established himself quickly and went onto lead the country within four years.
Originally a winger, speed and attacking movement were his forte and he used them to the fullest extent. The AFC Cup Winners Cup tie against mighty Al Zawra in Kolkata was the turning point of his career. As East Bengal won 6-2, Chapman struck a brilliant hat-trick to announce his arrival in Indian football.
Chapman’s best years were between 1993 and 1998 when he served East Bengal, JCT and FC Kochin and won every domestic title available in India. He was part of the star-studded JCT sides of the 1995-96 and 1996-97 seasons when the Phagwara side under Sukhwinder Singh won the National Football League (NFL), the Federation Cup twice, IFA Shield, Durand Cup, Rovers Cup, Scissors Cup and etched themselves as one of the greatest club teams in Indian football history.
The team had Bhaichung Bhutia, IM Vijayan, Jo Paul Ancheri, Tejinder Kumar, Stephen Abarowei and Bernard, but Chapman’s role in the middle remained unforgettable.
Ancheri recalls: “It was Carlton’s accurate passes and perfect centres that got us so many goals. I can’t imagine us reaching that height without him being there.”
Post retirement, Carlton often struggled to keep his coaching jobs and moved from one city to another. Former India coach Syed Nayeemuddin wondered what made the smiling midfielder so restless.
“He was a disciplined and dedicated boy, who worked hard in training sessions. I was very impressed with him,” says Nayeemuddin. He wasn’t far from the truth. For the Kathmandu SAFF Cup in 1997, the preparatory camp was held in Darjeeling. A key striker of the team was at loggerheads with the coach over the issue of dropping a midfielder. It continued even after the team travelled to Nepal.
Chapman was chosen as captain. It was a difficult task as the team had too many stars with huge egos and an extremely hard-to-satisfy coach. Carlton not only managed things admirably but also played brilliantly. Along with Tushar Rakshit, the “midfield general” and a rampaging Vijayan, he saw to it that India won the title comfortably.
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One still remembers a moment in the final, with India leading 5-1 against Maldives and less than five minutes left for the whistle, Chapman requested the coach to field a player who never had a minute on the pitch throughout the tournament. Nayeemuddin obliged him.
Another thing that made Chapman popular in the circuit was his friendly nature. In the 1990s, TFA produced a host of good players in the domestic arena. A coach, who did not wish to be named, said: “They were all good, but carried with them a sense of superiority as graduates of a reputed soccer school. Chapman was completely different. He was friendly and always wore a smile on his face.”
Not that he didn’t know how to protect himself from the tricky weather of Indian football. In the mid 1990s, a club offered him a huge contract and he agreed. But he refused to sign on the dotted lines till the promised amount of money was delivered at his Bengaluru home.
The date, March 16, 1997, would go down as JCT’s best and perhaps the worst day in history. In the evening, JCT routed Dempo Sports Club in the concluding tie of the inaugural NFL to bag the title. A couple of hours after the party was over in a Margao hotel, at least half a dozen JCT footballers chose to desert the club for greener pastures, most of them switching over to the newly-formed FC Kochin.
This correspondent bumped into Chapman after dinner and asked whether the rumours were true. He smiled sweetly and said: “Ya, they are paying much more.” He even named the others who were leaving JCT. He wasn’t one to be lured by cheap sentiment. On the pitch, whether it was for the club, state or the country, he was a complete professional, always ready to offer his best.
The untimely death of Chapman at the age of 49 is a big loss for the Indian football community. His style of play, approach and ability to make best use of his strong points, are ideal traits for upcoming midfielders. Sadly, Carlton Chapman won’t be there to narrate his fascinating tales or pass on some of his knowledge.
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