Let us start off with the time when you joined Mohun Bagan from BNR. What was the reason behind you joining Mohun Bagan & not our arch rivals East Bengal?
Subrata : A major reason was the fact that both me as well as my family members were supporters of Mohun Bagan. Keshto Paul from my locality, Shyamnagar, had participated in Olympics after joining Mohun Bagan & from that time Mohun Bagan was a famous name there. Incidentally, I was supposed to join East Bengal at first! They took me to their club premises on 3rd March, I informed them that I would sign later and then returned home. Meanwhile, one of my friend tipped off Mohun Bagan officials that I was back home. At that point Gaju Basu and another Mohun Bagan official came to my house in Shyamnagar. They picked me up from my home on 4th March and I signed for Mohun Bagan on 6th March. I stayed in Gajuda’s house for a while – East Bengal fans were not happy with my decision. My journey with Mohun Bagan started after that.
In 1974 we were a very young team – juniors like me, Ajit Dutta, Prasun Banerjee, Keshto Mitra. So, we didn’t get a lot of success. Still in 1974 we won Bordoloi Trophy as well as Durand Cup. In Durand we even defeated East Bengal in semi-final. 1974 Durand Cup ended in January of 1975 and on 5th January we defeated them. So we did win some trophies in 1974.
In 1975 we did concede 5 goals but we also won two trophies – Bordoloi Trophy & Darjeeling Gold Cup. I have never had a season in Mohun Bagan completely without trophies!
In 1976 Dhiren Dey brought in Chandramadhab Roy. After Royda came in there were lots of changes in the team. Mohammed Habib, Mohammed Akbar and Pintu Chowdhury came to Mohun Bagan. Then in 1977 we got Goutam Sarkar and Sudhir Karmakar. Then the trophies started to flow. In Indian club football no footballer has won more silverware than me. You name it, Rovers, Durand, Shield, Federation Cup, Nagji, Darjeeling Gold Cup, it makes me very happy to think that no one else has won so much for a single club.
I had many opportunities to switch the club but I never did. In 1976 East Bengal tried very hard to sign me but failed. The same thing happened in 1977 and 1978. I never demanded pay rise from Mohun Bagan but always accepted the amount decided by Dhirenda and rest of the officials. The amount of love and affection I got while winning trophies in Mohun Bagan was enough to keep me in the club. Money was not important to me but Mohun Bagan, its officials and its fans were more important.
Many of the players that I started playing with retired by mid of 1980s. The 1976-77 team had many famous players, like Habib, Akbar, Goutam Sarkar, Subhash Bhowmik, Dilip Palit, myself, Prasun Banerjee, Shyam Thapa and others. There was also great dedication in the squad and an intent to find success with Mohun Bagan. We practiced very hard.
I loved Mohun Bagan but that doesnt mean I didn’t respect other clubs. I have a lot of respect for East Bengal. Mohammedan SC is also a big club, with supporters all over India. But my loyalty and love always remained with Mohun Bagan. Even children fight with their parents, similarly I have spoken out against individuals at times. I don’t think any other footballer got mistreated like me. Due to mistreatment from officials I was often kept out of national team and I found it very unfortunate. Even today some journalists and organizers continue to deprive me. I don’t want to mention names. Despite this I guided Bhawanipore club to the top last season. I coached East Bengal for five months and won them Federation Cup. I took Tollygunge Agragami to brink of CFL title before eventually finishing as runners up.
Second question is about Mohun Bagan mess. There are lot of great stories about it. It was said it helped to unite the players during your playing days. Can you tell us some anecdotes about Mohun Bagan mess.
Subrata: Mohun Bagan mess was in Khiddirpur. Dhirenda then shifted it to Royd street. I won’t say the surroundings were great. I started living in the mess in 1974 and started to lead a disciplined life thanks to Dhiren Dey, Sailen Manna and Royda. The when Habibda joined he became my absolute guardian and I followed him closely. Habibda ensured that I never strayed from a disciplined life – he wouldn’t allow me back into the mess if I arrived after 6 PM, wouldn’t let me have dinner if I came after 12.30 at night! I adhered to Habibda’s routine. He made a great contribution in establishing me as a successful footballer. Without him I would have never achieved what I did.
Habibda was playing big matches or derbies from 1966 and he inspired me greatly on such occasions. At times when I was nervous, Habibda would encourage me and say, “Daro mat, hum hain. Tum chalo, thik khelega”. These words were inspirational to me.
The mess wasn’t in the most socially suitable area but thanks to Habibda I was able to maintain a regimented life. In nearby Park Street famous singers of those days performed, like Usha Uthup, Amrik Singh Arora, Mohammad Ali who were my friends but Habibda never allowed me to go there.
Has this discipline helped you as a player?
Subrata: Absolutely. 100% without any doubts. If you are not disciplined or if you lack dedication, you will never go far in life. Habib Da used to wake me up at 6 AM and take me to practice. After a loss in 1977, supporters didn’t let me play for one and half months and I was benched for few matches. At that time Habib Da used to practice with me at 6 AM, one and half hours extra as our usual practice started at 7.30 AM. All these things helped me to become a successful footballer.
Roger Milla in 1990. Pele in 1977. How do you remember those two matches?
Subrata: Pele had a godlike stature. He still has that stature. Pele was captain and I was my team’s captain. I still have a picture framed on my wall with him. When we were going down the stairs in Eden Gardens for that match, I was chatting with Pele. Habib slapped me from behind! He said, “Kyun baat kar raha hain. Abhi khelna hain, dekhna nahi hain. Chalo seedha”. This dedication and mentality is something I have tried to inject in my players as a coach. But societal structures have changed since then as has mentalities. We have come to a point where it is difficult to get success as a coach.
As a coach one of your great characteristics was to successfully use the likes of Saliu and Daniel Zeleny. Not many coaches would think of using these players in the positions that you did.
Subrata: Saliu had big strides. That prompted me to use him to mark Yakubu and also use him as a goal threat. Both Saliu and Zeleny did well in those positions.
You have won National League twice as a coach. Which one was more challenging?
Subrata: As coach I have won NFL twice and finished runners up once. Most challenging was 2001/02 season. It was the last match, a must win scenario for us but Churchill Brothers could win the title even with a draw. It was an away match in Goa on 15th April, which was also the first day of bengali new year. One of our defenders Saliu scored the precious goal as we won 1-0 in Churchill’s home. It was a joyous occasion for me, given how difficult the situation was.
For you, who was the best foreigner player?
Subrata: Emeka Ezeugo and Majid Bishkar were the best foreign players.
As a coach you saw Sunil Chhetri at a vey young age. Did you realize his potential at that time?
Subrata: Oh yes, I noticed his talent at that time itself. That’s why in 2003 I selected him and Subrata Paul after a trial. Subrata Paul became one of India’s best keepers and Sunil is still doing well.
And is there any player who you expected to flourish but he failed to do so?
Subrata: I expected Bikash Panji to be a great player but he was at his peak for only one or two seasons. One of my team mates Keshto Mitra also failed to get established despite being talented. Ratan Dutta also failed. Dilip Palit couldn’t maintain high standards for a long time. There are other players like them who failed to fulfill their potential.
What is your take on the I-League-ISL situation?
Subrata: If I-League and ISL can be unified in a single tournament it will be better. Even we played six tournaments in a season We played Nagji, Rovers, Durand, Shield, Calcutta League and Federation Cup. We also played in tournaments like Bordoloi trophy, Sikkim Gold Cup or Darjeeling Gold Cup. We played around 70-80 matches in a season – in 1979/80 I played 123 matches in a single season, including office football. A unified league is needed, with promotion and relegation and a second division. Four teams should be promoted and relegated. For now, take six teams from I-League and six from ISL. Let rest of the teams play in second division and then get promoted.