When Eastern Railway Ran on Full Steam (1958)
Indian national football team is on a high after its impressive display in the last two years, with them plummeting to a record 97th spot in the recent FIFA rankings, best in their history. The nation is also gripped by football fever as the host country of FIFA U17 World Cup is gearing up to witness some real-world class budding talents. And despite this latest change of fortunes, this same Indian football was traditionally once a formidable force in the continental front. And it was during those days that a lesser known team conquered the imagination of everyone. The team was Eastern Railway FC, our Indian Black Swan, presented to you by Debojyoti Chakraborty at Goalden Times.
The British started their colonial rule in India in the year 1757. As it is with almost every country they ruled in that era, the English brought in their own culture to the Indian shores. Their colonial dominance flourished under the flagship entity East India Company. As they spread their wings and penetrated to other parts of the country, their influence on native social and cultural life increased. So did football, the sport which was pioneered by the Brits and was one major form of refreshment of the English officers deputed in India. And this is how football flourished in Bengal, a major port in British India.
In those days, Bengal was a single state. Post-independence from the colonial rule and through some gruelling blood bath the state is now divided into the state of West Bengal (India) and an independent nation, Bangladesh. In its capital city Kolkata, then known as Calcutta, a football league was launched in 1898 by the name of Calcutta Football League (CFL). Needless to say, it was one of its kind in India, as the rest of the country was yet to embrace the beautiful game with open arms. In fact, CFL (conducted by the Indian Football Association), remains one of the oldest football competitions in the world till date. Even after independence in 1947, Kolkata remains the spiritual home of football in India. It is hard to imagine that it took almost half a decade post-independence to come up with the first national level league competition in India. So, till 1996, in the absence of any structured national league, CFL was unofficially recognized as the pinnacle of league football in India.
The early years of CFL as well as of Indian football, were dominated by the English teams. These were club teams founded and run by the foreign officers from Britain. Naturally, in those days of colonialism and extreme racism, no native was allowed to play for these clubs. The first edition of the league in 1899 was won by one such club – the Calcutta Football Club. Slowly other similar clubs came to reign the CFL. Notable mentions include Royal Irish Rifles, King’s Regiment, Gordon Light Infantry, Dalhousie, Black Watch and Durham Light Infantry. Still, Calcutta Football Club remained most successful of the lot having won the league a record eight times. They were also the first club to complete a hat-trick of league wins from seasons 1916-1918 and then again repeated the feat from 1922-24.
Indian clubs started their dominance in the 1930s. Mohammedan Sporting Club was the first Indian club to be crowned champions in 1934. And since then it’s only been Indian clubs ruling the charts. Mohammedan was a superpower in their own rights and went on to win five consecutive titles since their first successful season. Their dominance was soon challenged by two new superpowers of Calcutta football. Mohun Bagan Athletic Club and East Bengal Club soon joined Mohammedan and together the three clubs completed the fearsome trio of Maidan (the area in Calcutta where innumerable football clubs were based) who would go on to dictate domestic football at national stage for quite some time. By late 1950s they were neck-to-neck in terms of CFL tittles with Mohammedan holding the bragging rights with nine wins, closely followed by Mohun Bagan at seven and East Bengal at six. But a sleeping giant was about to get up from its slumber.
Football was at its peak in Calcutta during the 1950s drawing large crowds to the CFL and IFA Shield matches. The game was fast – played over two halves of 25 minutes each, fans were passionate and players wore the clubs’ crest on their heart with pride. After East Bengal had won the title in 1952, Mohun Bagan followed suit with its own league hat trick only to be dethroned by Mohammedan Sporting in 1957. The fearsome threesome were at their best. Their intense rivalry and genuinely excellent level of football had resulted in an inflated fan base and each of these clubs had their own unique sets of supporters. Mohammedan Sporting as the name suggests, were founded by the Muslim community. The club usually recruited players from the same community and naturally drew most of its support from the same community. East Bengal Club had a strong influx of refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan, (now Bangladesh) following independence and subsequent partition in 1947. Mohun Bagan, on the other hand, was the first Indian club to throttle English dominance en route their historic IFA Shield win in 1911. That win coincided with India’s freedom movement and even today is symbolized as an event of national pride. It was indeed difficult for other teams to make their forays but two teams, Wari AC and Aryans came close to catching up occasionally.
Eastern Railway Sports Club were founded in 1882. The club was an office team comprising of their employees and hence sometimes was referred to as the Railwaymen. Based out of Calcutta like so many other clubs in those days, they had made a name for themselves by reaching the finals of the Durand Cup, Asia’s oldest and the third oldest tournament in the World , in 1927. The office club won their first silverware when they lifted the IFA Shield in 1944. They continued to make small inroads into the alleys of Indian football. One of the best footballers of the country Sahu Mewalal donned their colours and by late fifties they had established themselves as a formidable force at the national stage. So much so, that they managed to reach the final of two major national level tournaments in 1957. While they lost to Mohammedan Sporting 0-3 in the IFA Shield final, they went one step further in the Delhi Cloth Mills (DCM) trophy final. After having held to a goalless draw the mighty East Bengal needed a replay to lift the trophy 2-0 at New Delhi. But these dual losses did not break the players’ hearts. Instead it galvanized them to achieve something incredible in near future with their enterprising football.
Buoyed by the success of the club, their then secretary Kalyan Kumar Das and coach Tejes Shome – fondly known as Bagha (Tiger) Shome – went about building a strong side for the next season. Handicapped by the spending capacity of their office club, they could not attract established star players. Besides it was very difficult in those days to convince any player to move away from the three powerhouse clubs of Maidan. So, Both Das and Shome opted for talented players from the local Bengali youth pool who were very much attached to the game in those days. One such player was Prasanta Sinha, the left-half. Recruited in 1957, the player started making his mark a year later. A hard-working midfielder, Sinha was excellent in fine tackles and neat ball control and all of that without ever breaking the law on the field – he was hardly ever booked in his entire career. Shome had unearthed a gem of a footballer who was virtually unknown till then. The club captain Pramatha Bose, a resounding stopper-back, also came from a humble background of the Railways Engineering College in Jamalpur.
It was the year of 1958. Off the pitch, it was a historic one as they were rechristened from Eastern Railway Sports Club to Eastern Railway Football Club. On the pitch also, it was going to be a watershed year for the club.
The start of the season was hampered as it coincided with the 1958 Tokyo Olympic Games. Alongside two of their star players Pradip Kumar Banerjee, better known as PK, and Nikhil Nandy, their coach Shome was also unavailable owing to national duty. Shome was doubling up as national team coach though he was in charge of a domestic club. And yes, the most important local league was underway when the national team was participating in the Olympics!!! Truly Indian football has come a long way as far as professionalism is concerned.
The league started with fifteen teams and was to be played in round robin home-and-away double leg format. In spite of having a depleted squad and without their coach to guide them, Eastern Railway won their opening three matches against Sporting Union, Police AC and Bally Protiva. But then they were left stranded without the spine of the team as they suffered unexpected losses in their next two matches against newly promoted clubs International and Rajasthan. But fortunately for them, Shome returned from the Olympics (India had done reasonably well by reaching the semis despite having limited international exposure) with his troop to take charge of a sinking ship. With the return of the stars they struck a purple patch by winning back to back matches against Howrah Union and Wari AC. PK, arguably the best ever footballer from India, ran the show against Wari, scoring a hat-trick en route to a convincing 4-1 win.
Their first major hurdle was their clash with star studded defending champions Mohammedan Sporting on 13 June, 1958. Mohammedan had an enviable line up boasting of stars like Omer, Rahmatullah, Syed Ahmed, Mushtaq Ahmed and Mohammed Ali. As expected, they started the match strongly but coach Bagha Shome had specially engaged a strategy of playing with a back three to stop the rampaging Sporting forwards.
It might appear quite normal in today’s context but we have to bear in mind that in those days most of the teams preferred playing with five forwards. The centre forward, classic number 9, was flanked by two forwards (attacking players) on either side. Right-in, right-out and left-in, left-outs – these positions may have lost their significance today but at that time they used to form the attacking backbone of any team. Teams were prepared to go gung-ho in search of a goal and naturally they were sometimes found wanting in keeping their defensive discipline. So, in that era to field a team with three stoppers could have backfired for Shome. But he knew what he was doing.
Most of Mohammedan’s attacking movements that day were foiled by the defensive wall of Eastern Railway comprising Buno Ghosh, their captain Pramatha Bose and Bhupathi Mitra. Even after that, if any attack managed to go past this solid defensive unit, goalkeeper Pradyut Barman ensured safety of their goal. Almost against the run of play Eastern Railway scored through their Olympian winger PK Banerjee in the closing stages of the first half when he collected a long clearance and dodged past a couple of defenders to hammer in a hard angular shot. Mohammedan Sporting came back with vengeance in the second half and spurred on by their vociferous supporters drew level through their Pakistani centre forward Omer. But it was a day when the minnows had earmarked to cement their claim towards immortality. Dinu Das snatched the winner soon and Eastern Railway had done their first giant killing act with a 2-1 triumph.
A week later Shome’s boys were up against another monumental challenge, the mighty Mohun Bagan. Again they were facing big name players like Sailen Manna, Chuni Goswami, Samar (Badru) Banerjee. The match ended 1-1 with Railways’ other Olympian midfielder Nikhil Nandy having an outstanding match. Prasanta Sinha scored for Eastern Railway while N. Biswas restored parity for Bagan. Five days down the line, the last of the fearsome threesome, East Bengal were waiting for them. Another army of star players like Tulsidas Balaram, Moosa, Narayan, Ram Bahadur, Hassan Ahmed Khan welcomed the tiny office club. Back-to-back difficult matches took a toll on them and eventually the Railways went down to East Bengal by a single goal, scored by Moosa. Even then Eastern Railways continued to hold sway as they finished the first leg at the pole position.
The most critical match came up on 14 July, 1958 when they crossed swords with Mohun Bagan in the second leg. In an end-to-end thriller at the Calcutta Cricket & Football Club (CFC) ground, Bagan had a golden chance to forge ahead when they were awarded a penalty midway through to the first half. But the Railway’s custodian Burman effected a brilliant save off Badru Banerjee’s strike. To add salt to Bagan wounds, Dinu Das scored in the second half to ensure a 1-0 victory in favour of Eastern Railway. This was Bagan’s only loss in the league but it was enough to derail them from the title race.
About a week later, on 22 July, Shome’s boys put up another spirited display when they edged out Mohammedan Sporting in an epic encounter. Right-in Ashim Shome, Bagha Shome’s son (who met with a tragic death a couple of years later) had put the office team ahead before PK doubled the lead. Abid got a consolation goal for the black and white brigade but that was all they could take home from the match.
The last of the big three, East Bengal was up next. Eastern Railway were buzzing with confidence. They had not lost a match since their first leg defeat against East Bengal and they were eager to avenge that. But East Bengal forfeited the return leg fixture and thus Eastern Railway were declared champions. Overall, they had won 22, drew three and lost only three matches out of a total of 28. In the process, they had racked up 48 goals while conceding eighteen. Their total points tally stood at 47, as only two points were awarded in those days for a win. They were pushed to the brim by Mohun Bagan who finished only a single point adrift. At the end, that second leg win over Bagan – that save by Burman – proved to be decisive!
Eastern Railway pepped The Three Musketeers of Maidan – Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting to the league title. Rajasthan completed the top five followed by Wari AC and Police AC. Then came Aryans, Sporting Union and Howrah Union. Bally Protiva finished just outside the top ten accompanied by Kidderpore and BNR. George Telegraph finished in the fourteenth spot while International Club finished with the wooden spoon.
Tejes Shome had moulded the young team in a wonderful unit who created history by becoming the only Indian team outside the big three to win the CFL. And that proud record stands till date. Next season though, Shome failed to replicate his success and had to settle for a place behind the big three. However, they continued to leave their mark in domestic football. During the sixties, they were reckoned as the giant killers and finished third in the CFL in 1965. In the following year, they were the only team to defeat the eventual champions East Bengal (1-0) in the league courtesy a PK Banerjee goal. Being an office club, Eastern Railway were able to attract quite a few promising youngsters luring them to the security of a government job. Back then, professionalism in Indian football was still a good couple of decades away. Players were not earning anywhere near satisfactory, forget being rich. Effectively players had to struggle to make ends meet post retirement. Everyone was still playing for the love of the game. In these circumstances, a career with Eastern Railway would prove to be a decent trade-off between one’s career ambitions and future financial security. PK remains a prime example of one such player.
PK went on to become one of the best the country has ever seen. He won numerous trophies and accolades – playing entirely for his office team. Post retirement he went on to become one of the most iconic managers in Indian football and again went on to win almost everything under the sky. Not many can do the double like PK!
Apart from PK and Nikhil Nandy, the club produced a number of players who left their footprints in Indian Football. From the League winning team of 1958, goalkeeper Barman and midfielder Prasanta Sinha went on to play for the country a number of times and were members of India’s Asian Games gold medal winning squad of 1962. Barman is one of those handful players to have won the Santosh Trophy (a very coveted football tournament in India contested by state teams and office clubs) playing for two different teams – Bengal and Railways. Sinha made adaptability his forte. Having started his career as a left-inside forward, he went on to become a very versatile player who could play in almost any position towards the left-hand side of the pitch.
Tejes Shome’s two sons Tapas (midfielder) and Ashim (forward) also impressed in their hey days. Another player making his mark from Eastern Railway was Kajal Mukherjee who went on to represent India a number of times thereafter.
As professionalism grew in the Indian football arena, footballers started attracting better deals. Future career opportunities also opened up. Some went for a coaching career, some joined the sports administration and some started their own business with the goodwill they had earned while playing. As lucrative corporate sponsorship deals started streaming in for private clubs, teams like Eastern Railway slowly but surely faded away with time. Since 1982, the league has been won by either East Bengal or Mohun Bagan. Eastern rail remains the last club to make its entry into the list of winners. Even the mighty Mohammedans failed to continue their surge and have won only two more editions since then. It has been a two-horse race. CFL lost much of its glamour and importance with the introduction of a nationalised league now known as the I-League. As the story of life goes, the same I-League is in danger of losing its significance to the big money churning Indian Super League, ISL. In a footballing world dictated by huge spending, it is difficult to see anyone emulating what Eastern Railway FC did some 60 years ago.
We are grateful to Mr. Gautam Ray, Team Media manager of East Bengal Club and a walking encyclopedia of Indian club and national football records, without whose valuable inputs and assured guidance this article would not have been possible.