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24th July, 1976. Mohun Bagan was facing East Bengal in a high voltage Kolkata derby. The Green & Maroons had not beaten their arch-rivals in Kolkata since 1969 and their fans had to endure a long and painful period of taunts from the fans on the other side. The match kicked off as Mohammed Habib passed the ball to Mohun Bagan left-outside forward. East Bengal’s legendary right back Sudhur Karmakar failed to adjust to the pace of the ball which was slowed down on muddy field and was outpaced by the left-out. He sprinted along the touch-line, dribbled past Karmakar and crossed into the box. Both East Bengal central defenders missed the flight of his perfectly floated cross as Mohammed Akbar rose like an eagle and headed the ball past Tarun Basu. 13 seconds into the game Mohun Bagan 1-0 East Bengal. Bagan would hold on to the scoreline and end an era of misery. Akbar’s name may have gone into the history books as scorer of fastest goal in history of the derby but the actual spadework was done by the man whose name was fondly chanted by fans of both clubs during his long stay in the Maidan. “Ulaga Ulaga”, the fans would shout for him. Few outstation footballers had the popularity enjoyed by Narayanswami Ulaganathan in his heydays.
The “mini-Brazil of Southern India
Ulaganathan was born in 1952 to a Tamil family in the Ulsoor region of Karnataka. Gowthampura, the area where he grew up was the breeding ground of a number of eminent footballers and was actually nicknamed “mini-Brazil”. Among the famous names were Arumainayigam and Pungab Kannan. Both represented India and had highly successful careers in Kolkata, the former being the corner-stone of Mohun Bagan’s golden era in 1960s with Chuni Goswami and Jarnail Singh. It was very natural that Ulaganathan too picked up playing football as a youngster and was even blessed with some important tips from Kannan when he was growing up.
In 1969 his senior career began when he joined Bangalore Mars where he would have Olympian SA Basheer as his coach. A year later he moved to Army Base team, 515. His association with army teams continued when he joined Controllerate of Inspection Electronics (CIL), a club where he would go on to play for three years till 1974.
Ulaganathan’s first big break came in 1972 when he was called up for the selection camp for Olympic qualifiers. By this time he had started to focus on individual training as he wanted to join a bigger club and emulate his idols. His training bore fruit as he was called up for the national team despite facing stiff competition for his position. Things were looking bright when he was picked for India again in 1973 for Merdeka Cup. He scored his first goal for India during a 3-0 win over Cambodia as well. Then disaster struck. An on-field clash against Malaysia saw him break his shin-bone, a nightmare of an injury. He had to sit out for six months as there were doubts about how far his career would go.
Creating history in Durand Cup
Sailen Manna was informed about Ulaganathan’s talent by Arumainayigam and Manna first approached to sign him during the selection camp in 1972. However, at that time CIL didn’t release him so he couldn’t join Mohun Bagan. Manna persisted again to sign him the following year. Interestingly, Ulaganathan was still injured at that time and had even visited Puttur to set his bone properly. Manna had faith in him and with him out with an injury the club didn’t face any hurdle in signing him. East Bengal had assembled a star-studded team that season and unable to get big names, Mohun Bagan focused on young prospects. Manna talked with journalists before the season started and remarked that they had assembled a better team that year. He pointed out that the club had signed three talented Bengali players (Prasun Banerjee, Subrata Bhattacharya and Compton Dutta) and two from Karnataka (Ulaganathan and Kosalram). Ulaganathan soon regained his fitness and curiously, realized that he was even faster than before.
His start was pretty ordinary, unfortunately. Mohun Bagan’s young team under an inexperienced coach in Arun Ghosh flattered to deceive in the IFA League. They finished a massive 15 points behind winners East Bengal with Aryan finishing second. Ulaganathan was struggling to adjust to the famed crowd pressure of the local fans. At one point he even decided to return back because of his problems to settle but everything changed when the Durand Cup came that season. Durand 1974 would forever remain the tournament which helped Ulaganathan to establish himself in Indian football.
In semi-final Mohun Bagan squared off against East Bengal having not beaten them in a single instance since 1969. After a gritty encounter it was Ulaganathan’s late goal that helped Bagan break a massive 1932 days long winless streak against their arch-rivals. JCT Mills was waiting in the final, a strong and ambitious local favourite, boasting Inder Singh in attack and Jaspal Parmer in defence. “Ulaga” as he was called by fans now, was yet again unstoppable. Feeding on passes from Parsun and Kannan he scored a hattrick as Mohun Bagan edged a close final by a 3-2 scoreline. This was Bagan’s first Durand title in ten years and remarkably, Ulaganathan was the first player in the history of Durand Cup, the second oldest football tournament in world, to score a hattrick in final. For next three decades he would remain the sole owner of this record before it was equalled by Odafa Okalie, ironically against Mohun Bagan.
1975 was a dismal year for both Mohun Bagan and Ulaganathan. The club not only failed win a single major trophy but also suffered from the ignominy of a 5-0 loss to East Bengal in 1975 IFA Shield final. Ulaganathan was one of the players in starting XI that day and his name would remain etched in this dubious record.
By 1976 the tide had begun to turn as Mohun Bagan’s squad strength gradually increased along with East Bengal weakening. That year Mohun Bagan would enjoy one of their most successful seasons with PK Banerjee as coach. The hoodoo against East Bengal in Kolkata was finally broken in the famous derby mentioned in start of this article and trophies would soon start to follow. Mohun Bagan did the unique treble of IFA League, IFA Shield and Rovers Cup that season with Ulaganathan at the thick of things. Manna’s bold declaration about his young players in 1974 may not have worked that season but by 1977 four of those five players were stars in Kolkata football.
The following season Ulaganathan made a quite unexpected switch to East Bengal. With Mohun Bagan signing Shyam Thapa for a then national record fee of Rs. 50,000 their offensive line was packed thanks to Subhas Bhowmik, Thapa, Habib and Akbar. Ulaganathan also had a good offer from East Bengal so decided to switch sides. East Bengal was a team in decline at that time and the addition of Ulaganathan’s quality was a boost to them. In his first season with the Red & Golds he helped them win the IFA League, somewhat unexpectedly, given the strength of Mohun Bagan. The following season proved even more successful as he won his second Durand Cup title and played a part in East Bengal’s first ever Federation Cup (joint winners with Mohun Bagan). It was also first of many Fed Cup titles for Ulaga.
In 1979 he was back in Mohun Bagan and would form one of the most popular partnerships with another player from south – Xavier Pius. Both players were skilled and natural entertainers and their combination lit up many a rainy afternoons in Kolkata maidan. In his second stint Ulaga would play in Mohun Bagan till 1983. He would win a bunch of trophies in those four years – IFA League (1979, 1983), Durand Cup (1979, 1980, 1982), IFA Shield (1979, 1981, 1982) and two more Federation Cup titles.
In 1983 Ulaganathan became one of the select few player to represent all three big clubs in Kolkata by moving to Mohammedan SC. Uniquely, he would win the Federation Cup title with them as well. In 1984 he would make a final switch to Mohun Bagan before calling an end to his career.
The Black Pearl of Kolkata Derby
At his prime Ulaganathan was one of the most exciting wingers in Indian football. He had pace, brilliant close control and was one of the best crossers of his generation. He gave the impression of flying along the touchline and there were very few full-backs in India who could control him. Kolkata crowd always had soft spots for players with delicate skills, which made him popular. What made him even more popular was the fact that he always played with a smile. Despite playing in the most heated phase of Kolkata derby in 1970s, where players often lost temper, Ulaganathan never received a single booking in his entire career.
Of course, he was never a prolific scorer. His best season in 1977 saw him score nine times, his highest tally. But as Shibaji Banerjee his contemporary, put it, Ulaganathan’s effectiveness was in his wing movement and how much thrust and width he provided on the flanks. One of his biggest antagonists Sudhir Chatterjee, also mentions his pace as his most important weapon and marked him out as possibly the fastest winger in India during his heyday.
Ulaganathan was nicknamed “Black Pearl” by the maidan crowd. A reference to the joy and entertainment he provided. And some of his best games came in the Kolkata derby, the biggest match of them all. A typically unique transfer saga of Kolkata football once saw him getting kidnapped by Mohammedan officials. After being kidnapped Ulaga was asked to sign a contract at gunpoint. He managed to escape through a bath-room window but this particular incident highlighted his popularity and importance in Kolkata football in that era.
His first important derby goal came in Durand semi-final of 1974. With the game tied at 0-0, winger Swapan Sengupta floated a cross toward the box. East Bengal ‘keeper Biswajit Das failed to clear the cross as Ulaga headed in a winner with three minutes left. His goal had a big significance in Mohun Bagan’s history as it helped the club to end their worst streak of form against the arch-rivals. A year later, it was his assist that set-up the fastest goal in history of the derby. He even struck the post once in the same match.
In East Bengal, he played a crucial role by keeping Sudhur Karmakar busy as a weaker Red & Golds upset a star studded Mohun Bagan 2-0 in a IFA League derby. That result eventually helped East Bengal to win the league that season.
In 1981 his brilliant performance in Federation Cup saw Mohun Bagan trounce East Bengal 2-0. Two years later he was back as Bagan’s tormentor as he set up Jamshed Nasiri twice to help Mohammedan win the Fed Cup.
When he retired Ulaganathan had not only spent eleven seasons playing for three of the biggest clubs in India but had also represented the country for five years between 1972 and 1977. He was part of the Indian team for pre-Olympics, 1974 Asian Games, 1973 Merdeka Cup, 1976 King’s Cup in Seoul and tours to Zambia, South Africa in 1977.
Since leaving the game a job with Bengal Chemicals has meant Ulaganathan didn’t take up full time coaching as some of his contemporaries. His love for football continues till date and he even named his house in Bangalore “Soccer Ville”. Recently, he attended the Mohun Bagan Day, along with his former team-mates including Xavier Pius. They were even involved in a friendly match with other veterans. For a lot of aged football fans seeing the Ulaga-Pius combination once again brought back lot of fond and nostalgic memories.
Sources: History of Indian Football by Nirmal Nath, Mohun Bagan-East Bengal Reshareshi by Manas Chakravarty, this interview on Mohun Bagan official site, Articles in Khela and newspapers. Pictures sourced from www.gcsstars.com.