The sun was beating down hard on a typically cruel May afternoon somewhere in Kolkata. The setting - a desolate football ground belonging to the Railways. The action - a young right forward practising his long-range shooting. The desperation to succeed was palpable. The young man had already undergone a practice session early in the morning but was back on the field alone right after, honing his craft like a man possessed.
This happened somewhere in the '50s and the anecdote was shared by a senior journalist from the day. The journalist had feared for his health, but the young striker had brushed off his concerns saying, "I need to try harder, son, much harder."
As the reader may have inferred, the young striker of this tale is none other than the legendary Indian footballer and coach Pradip Kumar Banerjee, simply known as PK Banerjee or PK to the maidan faithful, who passed away yesterday after another characteristic last-ditch fight against prolonged illness.
Banerjee, the player, was an international hero, and his record for the national team is sterling, to say the least. 64 goals in 85 games for the country, an Asian Games gold, a goal in the 1960 Olympics against France, and Merdeka Cup success.
He, along with Chuni Goswami and Tulsidas Balaram, formed a terrific trio up-front for India and brought unprecedented success to the national team. Yet, he failed to break the glass ceiling when it came to club football, never making it to the big three of either Mohun Bagan, East Bengal or Mohammedan SC. The senior journalist knew why he needed to try harder, why he wanted to prove his brilliance.
He was like the Karna of the maidan, as great a warrior as the privileged elite, but discriminated against in intangible ways. Banerjee spent his entire club career at Eastern Railway and made the Kolkata maidan his own, as the big boys were humbled on the way to a historic Calcutta League title in 1958.
However, posterity will remember Banerjee as one of the greatest managers the country has ever produced. His legendary vocal tone brought tears of inspiration and left footballers chomping at the bits before games.
Additionally, he was also a great reader of the game. As a coach, he had scaled those invisible barriers that prevented him from breaking into the elite teams as a player, and coached East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. He also led the latter to a cup treble.
Banerjee was also a successful coach of the national team and the who's who of Indian football for many generations, including heavyweights like Subrata Bhattacharya and Bhaichung Bhutia, were tutored by the great man.
It is possible that his ascent to the pinnacle of the game as a coach was engendered by the bittersweet memories of his playing days, where international success wasn't enough to lead him to the doors of big clubs.
Banerjee the coach's tales reverberate more in contemporary times but one can argue that his unparalleled success as a manager was born out of the desire to prove a point - something that Banerjee the player had felt throughout his career.Published 21 Mar 2020, 16:47 IST