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KOLKATA: As player and coach, Pradip Kumar Banerjee or P.K. Banerjee, was a rare breed among footballers. On the Indian football map, he was a pioneer in many ways than one hurtling the sport in the country to newer heights during a glittering career on and off the pitch.

Remembered for his famous equaliser against formidable France in the 1960 summer Olympics and his exploits at the 1962 Asian Games where India won gold to his man-management skills as coach of traditional giants East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and the national team; Banerjee leaves behind a legacy Indian football can never forget.

Born in Jalpaiguri, which is one of the major towns of the northern part of West Bengal, Banerjee completed his school education in Jamshedpur and broke into national reckoning when he donned the Bihar jersey in the Santosh Trophy.

His exploits down the flanks caught the selectors’ eye and not before long he was included in the national squad for the 1955 Quadrangular Tournament in Dhaka. India ran out winners in the competition, defeating Pakistan 2-1 in the final but more importantly India got two of its finest players in Banerjee and Peter Thangaraj.

There was no looking back for Banerjee from there onwards as he was picked for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics where he played a key role in their 4-2 win over Australia in the quarterfinals with two assists. It remains one of India’s finest performances as they crashed out of the competition after losing to Yugoslavia in the semi-final and Bulgaria in the third-place tie.

The 1960 Olympics was all about Banerjee’s equalising goal against France as India pulled off a shock 1-1 draw against their more fancied opponents. It was a poor meet for India as they finished last in a four-member group but Banerjee’s effort made everyone believe that the team can fight against the best.

It was the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta which is considered the highest point of Banerjee’s career as a player. He was not only instrumental in helping India win gold, he formed a deadly partnership with Chuni Goswami and Tulsidas Balaram.

A standout feature in Banerjee’s career was that he never turned out for any of the big fishes — East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, Mohammedan Sporting — at the Maidan, two of whom he would later go on to coach so successfully.

Banerjee plied his trade for Eastern Railways for most parts of his career after starting out with Aryans. He had to do so as he was the only earning member of the family and worked for Eastern Railways.

In 1958, the team comprising of Banerjee, Prasanta Sinha among others, was crowned Calcutta Football League (CFL) champions in a fairytale story and remained the last team other than East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting to achieve this feat until Peerless won the CFL in 2019.

After calling it a day, Banerjee ventured into coaching and had short stints at Bata Sports Club and Eastern Railway before East Bengal came calling in 1972. During his watch, the red and golds won four of their six consecutive Calcutta Football Leagues wins during 1970-75, including a 5-0 win against arch-rivals Mohun Bagan.

He pulled off a heist as Mohun Bagan coach when they famously held New York Cosmos 2-2 in an exhibition match starring the legendary Pele in 1977.

In between, Banerjee and G.M. Basha coached Syed Nayeemuddin-led Indian team to 1970 Asian Games bronze in Bangkok — the country’s last podium finish at the continental stage. Although Banerjee was designated as manager of the team.

Banerjee coached one among East Bengal, Mohun Bagan or the Indian team between 1972-1999, taking a three-year break in between to be at the helm of the Tata Football Academy (1993-96). He was the coach of the national team in three other Asian Games — 1974,1982,1986.

At the club level, Banerjee’s most memorable moment came in the twilight of his coaching career.

It was the 1997 Federation Cup semi-final where Banerjee’s East Bengal hammered Mohun Bagan 4-1 in front of 1,31,000 spectators. Bhaichung Bhutia had netted a hat-trick as Banerjee’s rivalry with Amal Dutta came to the fore.

Banerjee was known for his defensive football and pep talk before games and at halftime, called “vocal tonic”. He was a brilliant man-manager. He won the treble (IFA Shield, Rovers Cup, Durand Cup) with Mohun Bagan in 1977.

Banerjee’s contribution to Indian football was duly recognised by the world governing body FIFA that awarded him the Centennial Order of Merit in 2004. When the Arjuna Award was started in 1961, Banerjee was a recipient in the very first year. He was also conferred with the Padma Shri in 1990.

Rest in Peace legend! – IANS