The Dhyan Chand awardee coach recalled memories of winning the first ever National Football League title in 1996…
From winning the maiden National Football League (NFL) title in 1996-97 to guiding the Indian national team to some memorable international wins, Sukhwinder Singh, whose coaching career spanned for more than 20 years, has tasted his fair share of success.
Singh expressed his joy as well as gratitude towards the authorities after being conferred the prestigious award.
“It felt great, to be honest. It really feels nice when you get recognised. I have had a long coaching career and I have been given this award for that. Thanks to everyone,” the veteran coach told Goal.
Sukhwinder Singh’s coaching career as a senior team head coach began in 1992 with JCT FC. He recalled taking charge of a rookie side, with which he managed to create a stir in his debut year.
“Before 1992, I had worked with the junior teams as well as an assistant coach in the senior team. In the first season, there were only three recognised players in my team, others were all youngsters. With such an inexperienced side we went to Durand Cup. In the first round, we defeated East Bengal. We had also defeated Mohun Bagan and then Mohammedan Sporting in the final to win the trophy.
“It was really a special win as we had defeated all three Kolkata clubs and at that time it was a big deal. I remember there was a headline in Economic Times after the final which read, ‘JCT shows the way’. The specialty of my team was fitness and hard work,” said the former JCT coach.
Singh recalled what prompted him to sign stars like IM Vijayan, Carlton Chapman and Jo Paul Ancheri in the 1995-96 season which eventually resulted in JCT winning the first-ever National Football League (NFL) title in 1996-97. Before that, JCT were more known for developing local talents.
“I had a great batch of young players. But after the first three seasons, many of the players left for other clubs. I never liked how other clubs use to take away our players so one day I told our club owner Samir Thapar about this. There was a prevailing rule in the club until then that only Punjabi players should play for JCT in order to uplift the game in the state. But before the 1995-96 season, Thapar told me ‘why don’t you bring in some big names from other clubs’?
“We got IM Vijayan and Jo Paul Ancheri and I had also approached Bhaichung Bhutia but he told that he would like to play one more season at East Bengal as gratitude towards the club for launching his career. I respected his decision. Instead of Bhaichung, I brought Carlton Chapman. In 1995 we had won three trophies which include the Sait Nagjee Football Tournament and the Federation Cup.
“Next season, Bhaichung joined us and some quality foreigners like Bernard Oparanozie and Stephen Abarowei were also there. We won the NFL in the very first year. It was indeed a memorable experience,” said the NFL winning coach.
Unfortunately, the dream had lasted for just two seasons. In 1997, Vijayan and Ancheri joined FC Kochi while Bhaichung Bhutia returned to East Bengal.
With once again a new batch of players, JCT for a very long time, could not replicate their performance from the first edition of the league.
In 2005 again, Singh decided to bring in players from outside Punjab once again. They signed national team star Renedy Singh and then promising youngster Sunil Chhetri from Mohun Bagan who had just made his debut in the national team.
“In 2005 again, we decided to bring in some known names as we were not getting the desired results in the league,” recalled Sukhwinder. “So we signed Sunil Chhetri and Renedy Singh. Brazilian striker Edu (Eduardo Da Silva Escobar) had also joined us. He was a very good striker.”
“Whenever a player used to score against Kolkata clubs, the fans there never used to appreciate that and even abused the opposition player. But Edu got a standing ovation during the 2005-06 season in Kolkata. We had played Mohun Bagan and East Bengal back to back within a gap of three days. Against Mohun Bagan, we had won 3-2 where Edu had scored a hat-trick and against East Bengal, we once again scored two goals. It was one such rare occasion that the crowd had appreciated Edu’s performance.”