Amal Dutta, India's first ever professional coach who died in Kolkata on July 10, the day of the Euro 2016 final at the age of 87, was a man more sinned against than sinning. India's first-ever professional coach, the short-statured but large hearted Amal Dutta was a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde type of character, inspiring, intelligent but often self-destructive. He was recognised as the finest thinker of the game in India.
His attitude to life was refreshingly bold and ahead of his times. In the early 1960s, as a young man, he defied the characteristic Bengali middle-class dream of a secure government job by giving up a cushy job in the Indian Railways to become a full-time football coach. This was a bold step in the early sixties in India, when socialist thinking prevailed and private enterprise and individualism were not the buzzwords as they are now. Also in those days, income from football was meagre.
He was often abrasive with authorities, either the All India Football Federation or the Indian Football Association (IFA). As he survived on his football coaching skills, he expected proper payment and when this was not fulfilled, his penchant for outspoken remarks often landed him in trouble. Sadly, his genius as a coach was never fully recognised. His tenure with the national team was barely for a year in 1987-88.
For all his exemplary teaching skills, he was never made coach of India's age-group teams, a loss for the game in the country. His inability to compromise prevented him from getting his due recognition. Amal Da, as he was popularly called, was a perfectionist and a visionary. He courted trouble, financial hardships and even unpopularity but never gave up or compromised.
History will remember Amal Dutta not as just the first ever-professional coach but for his tactical contributions. In 1969 as Mohun Bagan's coach, he introduced the 4-2-4 formation in the country despite opposition from legends like former national skipper Salien Manna. In 1988 as Technical Director of the Indian team, Dutta made them play in the 4-4-2 formation for the first time. In the twilight of his career, Dutta experimented again in 1997 and used a three-back system and Mohun Bagan played in the celebrated 'Diamond' formation. All these new formations were used to extract the maximum potential from his players. He instilled confidence in the players by diligent practice so that they understood the nuances of the formation.
He was a competent midfielder with East Bengal in the mid 1950s and represented India in the 1954 Asian Games at Manila. To further his knowledge of the game, he went to England for a year-long coaching course with the Football Association (FA). He worked under the renowned Walter Winterbottom, England's first full-time coach. On his return to India, Amal Dutta's first major assignment as a coach was in 1960 when he trained Railways for the Santosh trophy.
In 1963, came his first stint with a big club, when he joined East Bengal midway through the Calcutta league. In the first leg, Mohun Bagan with greats like Chuni Goswami, Jarnail Singh, Kempiah and Arumainayagam in their team had beaten East Bengal 3-0. However in the return leg, under Dutta's tutelage, East Bengal triumphed over their arch rivals 2-0 with goals from Ashim Moulick and Noor.
Rescuing a team in adversity was a regular feature in Amal Dutta's career. As he once jocularly told me, "I am known as a Harley Street specialist. When the patient (losing football club) has been treated by all doctors and not recovered, they come to me."
Dutta remained with East Bengal in 1964 but a year later, he took the first of several bold steps in his chequered career. He quit the security of his job with the Indian Railways and opted to become a full-time football coach. The magnitude of such a step in the mid-sixties can be put in perspective by examining the remuneration received by Calcutta's leading stars in those days. Superstars like Jarnail Singh, Peter Thangraj, Ashim Moulick and Ram Bahadur received Rs 8,000-12,000 per annum.
Except Jarnail Singh, all the other players were employed in banks or public sector firms. Also the concept of a professional coach was not in vogue during those days. A comparison can also be made with P.K. Banerjee who was then at the peak of his playing career as a right winger with Eastern Railway. P.K. was much in demand by both East Bengal and Mohun Bagan but he never quit the security of his job in Eastern Railway because of family responsibilities and steady income from his employers.
Commenting on the risk factor, Dutta had once said, "Football was my passion. I had a dream. I wanted to start a football academy and groom youngsters properly to make them international players. To leave a secure job was a risk. I was newly married and was not sure how I would support my family. I often showed football videos -- cassettes to neighbourhood children and charged them a small amount to augment my income."
Dutta's dream of setting up his own football academy never materialised as he lacked the temperament to private sector sponsorship and during his coaching career never secured large sums of money.
For some years, Dutta coached outside Calcutta. Having established his credentials as a coach, in Orissa and Kerala, Dutta returned to Calcutta as coach of Mohun Bagan in the 1969-70 season. It was during this season that he made Bagan play in the 4-2-4 formation for the first time. Till then, most Indian teams played in the 3-2-5 formation.
Dashing and diminutive right back Bhabhani Roy became the first Indian wingback to regularly overlap frequently. Bagan's left wing back that year was the phlegmatic Altaf Ahmed. Selected for the prestigious Asian All Stars squad in 1965, Altaf belonged to the old school, a defender who excelled in sound interceptions and clean tackling but did not like to overlap and initiate attacks.
Dutta pragmatically dealt with Altaf. Realising that Altaf was too set in his ways to change, the left back was allowed to initiate moves from his own half. Roy was younger and faster and so Bagan started playing the 4-2-4 system with only the right back linking up with the attackers.
The 4-2-4 system became a craze in Calcutta in 1969 and Bagan were immediately successful. They won the coveted League title and the IFA Shield. In the IFA Shield final they trounced arch-rivals East Bengal 3-1 (left winger Pronob Ganguly 2 and striker Sukalyan Ghosh Dastidar 1). To introduce this innovatory system, Dutta faced opposition within the club. Legendary defender the late Padma Shree Manna scoffed at a system in which defenders became attackers.
But Dutta was persuasive and patient. He spent hours with the Bagan officials and former players showing them video cassettes of teams like then twice world champions Brazil playing in the 4-2-4 system and the effectiveness of the formation. Finally Bagan's officials relented and Dutta became famous as the man who brought 4-2-4 to club football in India.
Such inspired coaching and success with leading clubs like Mohun Bagan and East Bengal elevated Dutta to the national team in 1987. He was made Technical Director of the Indian squad with Syed Nayeemuddin as chief coach. Planning meticulously, Dutta enjoyed his tenure and introduced the Indian team to a new 4-4-2 formation. He was the first to make the Indian team play with either retracting wingers like Babu Mani or Uttam Mukherjee or with all -purpose midfielders.
At the Salt Lake stadium, Calcutta India won the 1987 SAF Games gold medal beating Nepal in the final. Then in the 1988 Nehru Cup at Siliguri, India played inspired football against formidable East European teams. India drew with Poland 1-1 with tenacious central midfielder P. Vijaykumar scoring the goal. Against Hungary also India took the lead, with Tarun Dey scoring a penalty kick before losing the match. Dutta's success was getting India to play effectively in the 4-4-2 formation.
Midfielders like P. Vijaykumar, Satyajit Chatterjee, V. Amalraj and skipper Sudeep Chaterjee moved effortlessly into scoring positions. Overlapping left back Deepak Kumar provided thrust on the flanks. For many years, the Phagwara-based Deepak had been on the fringe of selection for the national team but ignored. He made his international debut due to Dutta's foresight. Under his tutelage, Deepak became a more polished player. His crosses were more varied and consistent and his defensive positioning also improved.
Another Punjab player, the late Jagmohan Singh, the son of the late and legendary Jarnail Singh, was selected at Dutta's insistence for the 1988 Nehru Cup. He admired Jagmohan's powerful shots, mobility and close marking of burly strikers like the dangerous Nigerian Chima Okorie.
For some inexplicable reason, Dutta was dropped from the Indian coaching squad for the Asia Cup qualifying group at Doha, Qatar, in February 1988, just a month after the Nehru Cup at Siliguri. It was the old story, Dutta's abrasive nature led to his dismissal. As a professional, he expected prompt payment for his services, but the AIFF was tardy in its response.
Dutta with his tactical expertise and ability to inspire junior players would have been an ideal choice for the Tata Football Academy (TFA) but they ignored him. Experienced international midfielder Satyajit Chatterjee described him as the best coach he has ever played under. He admitted that Dutta played a pivotal role in harnessing his talent during his first season with Bagan in 1986.
After his abrupt dismissal from the Indian team, Dutta returned to club coaching and in 1991, again performed another Houdini like rescue act in mid-season. Subash Bhowmick was unsuccessful with Bagan in his first stint with a big club. Bagan flopped in the Durand tournament and did not even reach the semi finals. With the same personnel and a little changing of positions and subtle psychology, Dutta transformed Bagan's season of despair into one of success.
Suddenly Mohun Bagan played with new-found cohesion and confidence. They won the Rovers Cup (beat Mohammedan Sporting 1-0 in the final) and reached the final of the DCM tournament losing 1-0 to Iranian champions Pas Club. Earlier in the league phase, Bagan had held Pas club to a goalless draw.
Like Brian Clough, Dutta's contribution was shrewd utilisation of resources, improving morale and team spirit. He converted Uttam Mukherjee into an effective left-sided midfielder in the 4-4-2 formation. Skipper Sisir Ghosh was struggling to get a place in the playing eleven because Chima and new recruit I.M. Vijayan were in sparkling form. The wily Dutta inspired Sisir to function as a withdrawn forward, a snatcher and playmaker.
In the DCM quarterfinal league match against Pas Club and in the crucial semi-final against Mohammedan Sporting which Bagan won 3-0, Dutta used Pabitra Kar, a lanky forward who had just made his international debut, as right back. Dutta's reasoning for the switch was lucid. "Pabitra is an unusually combative player with good height and excellent in aerial duels. So I used him as a defender."
In the 1997 season, Amal Dutta created a sensation with his tactical innovation the "Diamond system", basically a 3-4-3 formation, with a defensive midfielder, playing as a screen ahead of the stopper back. Bagan used the three-back system with midfielder Debjit Ghosh playing deep as a defensive screen. Amit Das and Basudeb Mondal were the attacking midfielders on the flanks and from the quartet of Chima, Dipendu Biswas, Roshan Pereira and Abdul Khalique, three front runners were chosen.
Dutta again defied tradition by getting the players to train both in the morning and evening. The sultry Calcutta weather was not considered suitable for two training sessions a day. But Dutta by his varied and interesting training sessions ensured the players never got stale or fatigued.
Dutta's new system aroused spectator and media interest especially after Bagan's 6-0 demolition of Churchill Brothers in the Federation Cup quarter-finals. The crowds flocked back in the hope of witnessing attacking football. The 1997 Federation Cup semifinal between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan attracted a record crowd of 131,000 at the Salt Lake stadium, Kolkata.
The match was a setback for Dutta and his system. Baichung Bhutia's hattrick enabled East Bengal win 4-1. Despite trenchant criticism Dutta persisted with his system. He courageously replaced established international custodian Hemanta Dora with the taller Bibhas Ghosh and sidelined ageing international stopper-back Aloke Das for lack of speed.
Bagan played some memorable matches that season winning the Calcutta league, finishing runners-up in the Durand Cup and annexing the DCM trophy for the first time. In the DCM semifinal, Bagan defeated the newly formed FC Kochin 3-1, with a vintage display of attacking football, to avenge their Durand final defeat by the same team, a fortnight earlier.
There was just a few days gap between these two premier tournaments in the capital and Bagan had little time to recover after the devastating defeat to F.C. Kochin in the Durand final. The players were despondent. Chima did not eat for a day. Both Amit Das and Basudeb Mondal had niggling injuries. Satyajit Chatterjee was gloomy and the team did not want to play in the DCM tournament.
Dutta used a psychological ploy to revive team morale. He hired a bus and took them out for a day of sightseeing and shopping in Delhi, instead of the routine practice sessions. The players were not blamed for the Durand final defeat and Dutta planned ahead and achieved success in the DCM tournament.
Finally, how does one assess Amal Dutta in relation to other great Indian coaches? He was rated highly by his contemporaries and considered the best reader of the game in India and always made sound substitutions. He will rank amongst the great pantheon of Indian coaches in the 20th century along with the late S.A. Rahim, the late G.M.H. Basha, P.K. Banerjee and Syed Nayeemuddin.
However, history will remember Amal Dutta as a trendsetter, India's first professional coach, the great innovator with unsurpassed tactical acumen. Clever utilisation of resources and the ability to find the best combination for any set of players was his forte. A voracious reader, his knowledge of football was immense and his analysis of trends in world football was always informative. He had multi-faceted interests and read widely from Shakespeare to Salman Rushdie and relaxed by playing musical instruments like the tabla. It was only his incessant struggles with officialdom that prevented him from getting his due.