14 years have gone by, but Derrick Pereira remembers the moment as if it happened yesterday. It remains his fondest memory from the season where he coached Mahindra United to their first National Football League title during the 2005-’06 season.
A scintillating start to the season propelled Mahindra to the top of the table – they went unbeaten for six matches that included away wins against title contenders Dempo, East Bengal and Salgaocar but the challenge of competing in the 2006 AFC Cup began to affect their domestic results.
Before they travelled to Bahrain to face Al Muharraq for their third AFC Cup game, Mahindra United went on a winless streak, drawing three NFL matches.
Muharraq had won their first two AFC Cup matches and going to face the group A toppers wasn’t going to be an easy task for Mahindra, especially considering that they had only a day’s rest before they could face the hosts.
Expectedly, it was the team in form, Muharraq that scored first. They did after the hour mark but Mahindra soon responded with an equaliser three minutes through Mathew Sushant. But even as the their opponents threatened on quite a few occasions after the break, Mahindra rallied back to leave Bahrain with a crucial point. That draw instilled the belief that they could challenge for the NFL title again.
“The character of the team stood out,” Pereira told Scroll.in.
“We bounced back from 0-1 down just after a day’s break. We drew the match [against Muharraq] and players were determined. We lost some points when we were leading the table but [after that draw] there was a feeling in the side that we would bounce back.”
A tricky away match against JCT awaited them next, and there was the fear of striker Jose Barreto missing out. The Brazilian, however, opted to play after a pain-killer injection and scored the winner, keeping the pressure on league leaders East Bengal.
Another 1-0 victory followed in their next game at it was against East Bengal at the Cooperage stadium. Following that, four wins on the trot saw Mahindra lead the table again and once East Bengal suffered a 1-3 defeat to Sporting Club de Goa, their fate had been confirmed.
Mahindra, with three matches remaining, were crowned champions and created history by becoming the first side from Mumbai to win a national league title. That also helped them become the first club in India to complete the double, winning the Federation Cup and National Football League double in the same season.
A team to beat
In 2000, the Mahindra football team that was part of the Mahindra Group underwent a complete revamp. The club was rechristened as Mahindra United from Mahindra & Mahindra Allied Company Sports Club and changed their colours from orange to red. The Mahindra management, which was also involved in other sports such as cricket, tennis and kabaddi began pumping in a lot of funds into the football team. Not only did the Jeepmen offer top-notch facilities but also handsome contracts to woo the best footballers in India.
“Mahindra was one of the most professional and well-run clubs,” Steven Dias, who spent seven seasons with Mahindra from 2003-’10 told Scroll.in. “We had own training ground which others were struggling to have at that time. We also had a gym, swimming pools and access to other facilities that other clubs didn’t offer. From our diets to training sessions, everything was well-monitored.”
Despite three mid-table finishes in the NFL between 2000-’03, Mahindra United established themselves as a powerhouse in the state. They finished top of the Maharashtra District Football Association Elite Division from 2000-’04 and even began to compete for trophies at the national and global level.
When David Booth took over as coach from Karel Stromsik ahead of the 2003 season, Mahindra became a team to beat, winning the Super Cup and the Federation Cup that year. They ended third in the NFL, their best-ever finish, and bagged their first international trophy at the President’s Cup of Maldives.
Booth also led them to the quarter-finals of the AFC Cup later that season. Such was the progress that Mahindra was even listed in the World Club rankings.
He recruited India international players consisting of Mahesh Gawli, Surkumar Singh, Venkatesh Shanmugam, Abhishek Yadav, Steven Dias and goalkeeper Sandip Nandy among few others who formed the core of the team. The Englishman later left the club due to personal reasons with Mahindra appointing Syed Naeemuddin as interim coach.
“I would say the squad with which we won the title was created by David Booth,” said Dias. “At one point of time, Mahindra had eight-nine players in the national team, so it helps when you have players playing both for club and country.
“We were a closely-knit unit, more like a family. When Booth came in as manager, he said, ‘I don’t want any groups in this squad.’ So be it senior players or youngsters, we all bonded well. Even if there was an outing such as going for a movie, the whole team was together. We understood each other well off the pitch and that helped us while playing.”
When Pereira was appointed head coach ahead of the 2005-’06 season, he added reinforcements to Mahindra’s squad by including more players from the Indian team, apart from signing quality foreign players in strikers Yusif Yakubu and Jose Barretto, both who had the experience and proven track record in Indian football.
Pereira hit the ground running, winning the Federation Cup title, which served as a huge boost before the NFL season. The Goan also became the second man after Subrata Bhattacharya to win the Federation Cup as both player and coach.
Describing the clash of styles between Booth and Pereira, Dias explained: “The difference between them was that Booth’s philosophy was more defensive. He wanted the backline to be compact and would usually preferred a five-man defence while Derrick always would play with four-man defense and for him attacking was important. We quickly adapted to Derrick’s plans and since you have the same set of players, the understanding remains even if a new manager comes on board.”
Although Mahindra fell short, failing to progress past the group stages of the AFC Cup during that season, they were unstoppable in the league after that draw against Muharraq, suffering just one defeat against Mohun Bagan on their way to the NFL title.
Mahindra not only became the first team from Mumbai to clinch the NFL but also brought an end to the domination of Kolkata and Goan clubs who shared the previous seven league titles. During their NFL triumph, Mahindra secured 11 wins from 17 games while losing thrice.
“Derrick wasn’t that strict but was a disciplinarian,” stated Dias.
“He was one of the best coaches at that time and was also completing his AFC Pro License. As he was young, he would often train with us and his practice sessions weren’t monotonous. Players used to look forward to his sessions. He would mostly work on our mistakes in training. He would use video analysis, experiment with different types of training methods and he noticed what other coaches did. Before each game, Derrick would study the opponents thoroughly and show us how they would play and what were their weak points.”
The start of an end
In his four-year stint, Pereira would go on to win the Durand Cup (2008), IFA Shield (2006, 2008) alongside guiding Mahindra to the quarters of the 2007 AFC Cup but the Mumbai outfit were never able to replicate their national league triumph again. The Jeepmen secured a third-place finish during the 2006-’07 campaign but after the NFL was renamed as the I-League in 2007, Mahindra never finished in the top three again.
“After that season, we lost many of our players,” said Pereira. “We lost Gawli, Deepak Mondal and other players. It takes time to gel as a team when you have a new set of players.”
Beginning with Gawli’s high-profile transfer to Dempo, who back then secured a contract worth Rs 1 crore, becoming the costliest player in Indian football, Mahindra witnessed a mass exodus ahead of the 2007 season. With other clubs offering lucrative contracts, the financial pressure to keep hold of the best players took a toll on them.
“If you keep winning, the demand for the players goes high and it becomes difficult to keep them,” said Pereira. “There was a financial burden on the club to retain the players.”
Barreto and Yakubu moved back to Kolkata with Bagan and East Bengal respectively and plenty others followed suit. Despite boasting a few bunch of passionate supporters, the lack of crowd support at Cooperage also had a big role to play, feels the Goan coach.
“Another point was that players missed the home support, that part was missing at Mahindra,” he claimed. “There were a few supporters that were faithful but we needed more support. When we won the NFL, the guys who had experienced football in Kolkata were shocked as there was little excitement. You need more fans to create that atmosphere. Those are some issues which made players get a look at better clubs.”
Midway during the 2009-’10 I-League season, the Mahindra United management, much to the dismay of many, announced that they would disband the football club after the end of the season. They pointed to several factors such as lack of revenue from TV rights, poor crowd support, no breakthrough of young talent and that Indian football had not been progressing enough which has forced them to bite the bullet.
Almost a decade has passed by since their departure and no other club from the city has come close to achieving what Mahindra United did. Mumbai’s waning interest in the sport might have contributed to their exit but the legacy left behind by Mahindra still lives on.
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