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There are very few players in the history of Indian football who have played for the national team over a decade despite never playing for East Bengal, Mohun Bagan or Mohammedan SC. There are even fewer who would reject a blank cheque offer from the Green & Maroons or an offer from Malaysian PM or a lucrative chance to play for Khalsa Sporting Club in Canada. Meet Inder Singh, a son of the soil in truest sense of the word for hordes of Punjabi footballers that followed him – a man to whom roots mattered more than anything else.
The Leaders Club Phenomenon
Inder Singh was born on 23rd December, 1942 in Phagwara, Punjab. His interest in football started when he was a youngster studying in Govt. High School in Phagwara. Inder Singh would practice for hours after school, often when it got dark. His early dedication to the game would remain a hall mark behind his success later in his career. His talent didn’t stay hidden for long as Inder was selected to represent his state in All-India School Games in 1960 and 1961. His prolific scoring record in the school level tournament earned him the tournament top scorer as well as the best player award.
Impressed with his talent, he was selected by Leaders Club as a guest player for them.
As a state Punjab became affiliated to AIFF in 1951 but it took a decade more for start of organized football. Founded by Lala Dwarkadas, Leaders Club was a pioneer of sorts and despite not having as much success in terms of trophies as later Punjabi behemoths like JCT, Punjab Police or BSF, they were perhaps the most important club in the northern state in the 60s. Till 1961 Inder Singh starred as a guest player, going to districts to play exhibition matches and local tournaments. After passing out from school the 20 year old Inder joined Leaders Club permanently, starting his senior career.
Inder would soon get his big breakthrough as Leaders Club were invited to participate in the 1962 DCM Trophy. Started in 1945 and funded by Delhi Cotton Mills, the prestigious tournament was held every year in Delhi and had seen teams like East Bengal and Mohammedan SC lift the trophy in previous editions. The 1962 edition also featured a plethora of strong teams like Salgaocar, Mysore XI, Mohammedan SC and Mafatlal. Leaders Club made their debut with a 3-0 thrashing of Howrah Union before squeezing past BSF in quarter-final with a 3-2 scoreline. Bombay powerhouse Mafatlal Mills FC proved to be too strong in semi-final as Leaders Club lost 2-1 but they still managed to clinch the third spot with a 4-1 mauling of Mysore XI. The performance of Leaders Club in DCM trophy created frenzy in Punjab as it was the first time when a club from Punjab had excelled in an all-India tournament. It was also a big breakthrough for Inder Singh as he finished as top scorer for his club.
Another important event in Inder Singh’s career happened in that tournament as he was spotted by Harry Wright, who had taken over from the recently deceased Rahim saab as coach of the national team. India had won gold in Asian Games the same year Inder started his senior career. However India had a problem, while rest of the squad was filled with quality players they lacked a strong center-forward like Sheoo Mewalal or Neville D’Souza in past. With Asian Cup and Olympic Qualifiers coming up Wright needed a strong center-forward who could act as a focal point to his English style of play and the young Inder Singh fitted his bill.
Top Scorer in Asian Cup
In 1964 22 year old Inder Singh travelled to Tel Aviv to participate in the first Asian Cup for his country. He had already created history in his own way by becoming the first footballer to get selected for the National team despite being fully based in Punjab, in an era where footballers from Bengal, Hyderabad and Bombay would get selected mostly. He was also facing a daunting set of fixtures as India were scheduled to play three matches in Asian Cup between 27th May and 2nd June before travelling to Tehran to play Olympic qualifiers from 7th July. Before they took to the field against South Korea for the first match Indian players were distraught to hear the news of death of Jawaharlal Nehru. Playing with black armbands they still sailed through as Inder Singh scored on his debut, sealing a 2-0 victory. Hosts Israel proved too difficult a nut to crack few days later as they bundled India out 2-0. But a 3-1 victory over Hong Kong on 2nd June ensured India finished as runners-up in the third Asian Cup. They would wait for 2 more decades to participate in the same tournament again. And just like his first DCM Trophy, Inder Singh finished joint top scorer for Asian Cup, scoring 2 goals in 3 matches and was selected as best “right-out” of the tournament. In comparison, the Olympic qualifiers were anti climactic as a tired India lost 3-0 in the away leg and 3-1 at home in Calcutta. If playing 4 matches in a gap of 10 days wasn’t enough Indian players were further sapped off their energies thanks to unscientific training methods of Wright who failed to understand the physique of his players.
By mid-1960s Inder Singh had become a regular fixture in Indian national team thanks to his goal scoring prowess. It was also a transitional phase as the legendary trio of Chuni Goswami, PK Banerjee and Tulsidas Balaram had broken up and the team needed new, energetic strikers.
Sudhir Karmakar, perhaps the best defender of his generation, described Inder Singh’s strengths and weaknesses in an article in Khela Magazine in 2001. Karmakar was still a rookie as he came up with Inder Singh, then an established striker, while playing in IFA Shield. Karmakar wrote, “I had never faced Inder before in my career. I understood his strengths in first few minutes. He had a blistering pace and turned with the ball quickly. He wasn’t the most skilled striker but his combination of speed and power was absolutely lethal”.
Along with his blossoming career for the national team Inder also grew from strength to strength in club level. In 1966 he was back at his best as Leaders Club scored 19 goals in 6 matches to reach their first ever DCM final. The final against Punjab Police ended 0-0 but the Police side clinched the title with a 2-0 replay victory. Leaders Club was back in the final once again the next year, losing again, this time a heavy 5-0 loss against Mafatlal Mills. In 1968, Leaders Club had reached their third final in a row after dispatching foreign side Colombo FL in quarter final and Gurkha Brigade in semi-final, winning 4-0. Sadly, Mafatlal Mills proved to be their nemesis once again as they lost 2-1. In 1971 Leaders Club would have some measure of revenge by beating Mafatlal Mills in quarter-final. They upset East Bengal’s golden team in sem-final but lost their fourth final against Taj Club. The DCM trophy was a vital turning point of Inder Singh’s career but ironically, his club failed to win it despite reaching four finals.
Inder travelled with India to Bangkok for 1966 Asian Games but couldn’t prevent his country from defending their gold medal, despite scoring once. He would continue to represent India till 1978, captaining in 1969, 1973 and 1975 but gradual declining standards of Indian football meant he saw very little success.
He would find considerable accolades while representing his state in Santosh Trophy. He missed out due to a season ending injury when Punjab won its first title in 1970/71 season but was back to his brutal best in 1974/75 season. Playing attacking football rarely seen in the long history of this tournament, Punjab scored a massive 46 goals. Even more incredible was Inder’s feat, who, despite entering his 30s, scored a jaw dropping 23 goals – still a national record. Under Jarnail Singh’s coaching Punjab thrashed Bengal 6-0 in the final, a record score-line with Inder Singh scoring a hattrick.
Romance with Merdeka Cup
Started in 1957 Merdeka Cup celebrated Malaysian National day. It was in this tournament that Inder would show some of his best International performances. In his first Merdeka Cup in 1964, he scored twice – once against Cambodia in a 4-0 win and the other one was a match winning goal during a 2-1 win over South Korea as India finished runner-up.
After missing out for two editions he was back in 1968 and this was arguably his best International tournament for India. He scored in the opening loss against the hosts before finding the net two more times as India triumphed over Vietnam (3-2) and Myanmar (3-0).
The 1969 edition would bring another special memory as Inder Singh donned the captain’s arm band for the first time. Unfortunately, India were knocked out in the group stages after winning only one of three matches though Inder maintained his scoring record with a goal against Singapore.
The 1970 Merdeka Cup was a bitter experience for him as he injured his knee seriously, and would miss out for almost a year. Three years later, once again as captain, Inder would play his last Merdeka Cup, scoring a brace during a 2-0 victory over Thailand as India finished sixth.
Also in the Malaysian capital Inder Singh received the honour of playing for Asian All Stars XI, losing 4-1 to Arsenal FC in 1967. He was picked for the all stars XI the next year as well though the fixtures were cancelled.
Impressed by his consistent performances in Merdeka Cup then Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Rehman (also the country’s first ever PM) offered him a Rs 23,000 per month contract to play for his country on a five year citizenship. However, Inder Singh had always stayed true to his roots and declined the offer.
Inder left Leaders Club in 1974 and joined new Punjabi powerhouses JCT Mills. Bankrolled by industrialists JCT would soon become the biggest force in Punjab as well as Indian football. Inder would win a slew of titles between 1974 and 1985 with JCT, though he once again lost a DCM final, this time to Spartak United of USSR. Durand Cup was the tournament where he would find greatest success with JCT, reaching 5 finals and winning the trophy twice in 1975 and 1983.
Inder retired from football in 1985 but continued to be an integral part of JCT, serving as manager for 16 years till 2001. With him as manager and former team-mate Sukhwinder Singh as coach JCT would become the best club team in India in 1990s – winning Federation Cup twice and lifting the inaugural National Football League title in 1996/97 season. In 1969 he was conferred the Arjuna Award, the first footballer who was not part of the 1962 Asian Games team to win it. He was also only the second footballer after the great Yusuf Khan to win the award despite never playing for the big Calcutta clubs. In 1974 he won Delhi Sports Journalists Association award and won “Pride of Phagwara” award in 2003. He was also immensely popular in Kerala where he often played exhibition matches in remote places to popularize the game. He was the Honorary Secretary of Punjab Football Association from 2001 till he resigned for personal reasons in 2011.
Inder Singh continues to be attached with football even though he had to see two of his beloved clubs JCT and Leaders FC getting disbanded. Most recently, he was one of the guests as GFA unveiled Goan Football Policy draft. Jarnail Singh might have been the greatest footballer to come out of Punjab but it was Inder Singh who inspired local youngsters that they could find success in the game even if they stayed back in Punjab.
Sources: History of Indian Football by Nirmal Nath, Stories from Indian Football by Jaydeep Basu, Articles in Khela. Pictures courtesy of JCT FC official site.