They stand last in defense and first in attack, playing second fiddle for the most part. The consolation during defeats and celebrations in victories are but confined to themselves. Their valiant efforts go concealed and unnoticed because of all the attention being on the brilliant works by defenders or strikers. They are our goal-keepers.
Across the ages, the game of hockey has seen many such brave characters, particularly in the great nation of India. In its glorious past, India had been slave to the brilliant works of Richard Allen, Pat Jansen, Ranjan Negi, A Subbiah and many more. It’s generally tough on anyone’s part to pick the best 3 from that esteemed list.
Here are those who I personally believe can make to the top 3 list if one is to ever be made.
1. Richard James Allen:
One of the few triple Olympic gold medalists for over two decades until 1956, the Nagpur-born Allen, born on 4th June, 1902, holds the rare distinction of watching the most number of goals scored by his team. After developing strong basics at Oak Grove School, Mussoorie, this Anglo–Indian moved to St Joseph’s College in Nainital. By then, his works inside the cage had come to light. It was during the Amsterdam Games in 1928 that Allen made a huge mark for himself. Believe you me, he did not concede a single goal in the entire event – a record.
Four years later in 1932, the mega events shifted to Los Angeles. A few strange things took place there. In one match against the USA, he was seen signing autographs. In the biggest score ever on the international stage where Roop Singh, brother of Dhyan Chand, scored 10 goals, Allen just conceded a single goal. The final score read 24 – 1 in India’s favor. Some still say that the defense was strong, but I say the ability of Allen was one of the biggest reasons for the lopsided score. Ironically, this was the only goal he conceded in the entire event in four matches as India went on to take the gold medal. Displaying consistency at its best, the legend did not stop after winning two gold medals. He always believed in strong basics and guarded the cage to his best. In the 1936 Berlin games, most remembered for Dhyan Chand’s magical works, Allen gave away only one goal, thus repeating his feat of the previous games, holding the rare distinction of conceding two goals in three Olympics and winning 3 gold medals as a custodian. Unfortunately, the hockey fraternity lost this legend at the age of 67 in 1969.
2. Shankar Laxman:
Arguably one of the greatest characters in goal-keeping, Shankar Laxman was born in Mhow in Madhya Pradesh exactly a year after India won the gold at the Los Angeles Games. Laxman’s first love was football. However, he took to hockey after entering the army. Fondly known for his bravery and a stiff mental attitude, he started picking up the pace and received much-deserved applause and admiration. One thing that truly separates him from others was his ability to play without strong protective gear. The first goal-keeper ever to captain a side, Laxman won two golds, one in 1956 and the other in 1964, and was part of an Indian contingent that won its only silver (at the 1960 Games). Laxman is most remembered for stopping Pakistan’s Muneer Dar’s corner in the dying moments of a nerve-racking final and bringing back the gold at the 1964 Games.
On many an occasion, he was the only difference between winning and losing, as he frequently turned the game around from the jaws of defeat almost single-handedly. At some points, it seemed as if there was a wall built on the goal line. The legendary Dhyan Chand in his autobiography termed courage as the most important of all the attributes of a successful goal-keeper. Undoubtedly, Laxman was the embodiment of courage in his playing days. To his credit, Laxman also played in three editions of the Asian Games in 1958, 1962 and in 1966, in the last of which he led the team to gold. Despite all his unmatched deeds, he was not picked up for the 1968 Games. He then quit hockey and retired from the army in 1979. Sadly, he lived his last years in penury and left all of us in 2006 due to a gangrene problem in one of his legs. As a mark of respect, Laxman’s body was cremated with full military honors for he retired from the army as the captain of the Maratha Light Infantry.
3. Mir Ranjan Negi:
Now then. From where should I start about this man? Misery, agony, troubles, optimism, bliss and peace of mind, all blended in one – that could best describe this great character. If I have to describe him in a single phrase, it would be “obscurity to eminence”. Mir Ranjan Negi, my personal favorite and an inspiration for many, hails from Garhwal in Himachal Pradesh. His early days were in Bhopal and Indore and he first made an appearance in an inter-university tournament. Purely on the basis of merit and integrity, he represented India, first in the junior hockey World Cup in 1979 (the first of its kind), and then in the senior national team in the early 1980’s. He possessed that rare knack of anticipating the movement of the ball, and prevented many from entering the cage.
A true patriot who always believed in a positive mental attitude and performance-oriented goals, Negi did taste plenty of sorrow too. On the fateful day of the 1982 Asian Games final against Pakistan in Delhi under the watchful eyes of many, he conceded seven goals to Pakistan’s one. What followed that, though, was hard to imagine. Negi was made the whipping boy and the entire nation started berating him.
Now hockey is a team game, and it is very important for the fans to understand that. As a true sportsman, Negi showed nerves of metal and incredible fortitude and bounced back eminently. After having faced his worst nightmare, Negi coached the Indian men’s team to gold at the 1998 Asian Games and the women’s team to gold at the 2002 Commonwealth games.
Currently, this legend has set up the Abhi foundation in memory of his deceased son, to nurture and enlighten young talent. I wish all the success and happiness to him and his family.
Apart from the above three, custodians like Pat Jansen, Manuel Fredericks, Leo Pinto, George Nainan, A B Subbiah, etc. will also make the list of the greatest goal-keepers on any given day. I would like to conclude with the following lines said by P R Sreejesh, goalie of the current national team.
“After all, celebrating alone when a goal is scored and taking the blame when a goal is conceded, demands that extra bit of strength”.