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One hundred years ago, Bengal played host to a football match between Mohun Bagan and the East Yorkshire Regiment. The game was for the IFA Shield – the world's fourth-oldest cup competition – and was the first time an Indian side had made it to the final.
Mohun Bagan won 2-1 to become the first Indian side to not only beat an English side, but win the IFA shield, in front of an elated crowd of 80,000 Bengalis. They would later be dubbed the Immortal XI and held as one of the greatest Indian football sides ever.
The victory meant much more than mere bragging rights. For a country that had borne witness to the brunt force of British imperialism, the very thought of beating the colonisers at something as English as football was unthinkable. That those 11 Bengalis, barefoot and untrained, could defeat one of the best sides England could offer sparked a newfound confidence in Indian culture that already possessed a strong, if suppressed, nationalistic mood.
Despite the country having to wait until 1947 for independence, the match is regarded as a vital chapter in the nationalist movement in Bengal, as the club became synonymous with India’s struggle for justice and equal rights during the partition of the region from 1905 onwards.
So it would seem only fitting then, in the centenary year of such an illustrious win for India, that Mohun Bagan should hire an Englishman, right? The Kolkata club have announced the appointment of Steve Darby as the club's new team manager for the upcoming I-League season, beginning in October.
The decision was taken after the joint efforts of Stanley Rozario and Subhas Bhowmick failed to reach expectations, the previous campaign ending trophyless in a dismal sixth-place finish. This was the first time since 1973 that the club had gone without winning a single competition.
To call Darby a journeyman would be an understatement. The Englishman began his career in Australia when he was appointed as national development manager for the sport down under in 1990. After spending half a decade there, he had his first taste of football management, taking over at Sydney Olympic where he spent three inconsistent years in Australian football's second tier. But Darby would have to travel to South East Asia before his career would really take off.
At Malaysian side Johor FA, he guided the side to their first ever FA Cup trophy in 1999 and their second Malaysia Premier League crown a year later. From there, Darby moved on to the Vietnamese national women’s side, orchestrating a South East Asian Games gold medal and a reputation as something of a miracle worker.
This success earned him a job at the Singapore side Home United in 2002. During his three years at the club, Darby racked up one league title, two runners-up places and two cup trophies in three consecutive finals. In addition, the club pushed the limits of Singapore football with an astonishing assault on the AFC Cup that ended with semi-final defeat to eventual champions Al Jaish. Darby’s reputation had gone continental.
After his Singapore fling, Darby returned to Malaysia and Perak FA, taking them to two cup finals and a league runner-up spot, besides once again pushing the limits of his surroundings by taking the club to the AFC Cup quarter-finals – the furthest a Malaysian club has ever progressed in continental football.
After doing all he could at Perak FA, he accepted an assistant role under Peter Reid and later Bryan Robson for the Thailand national team, where he worked for two years, helping the side reach the Asian Games quarter-finals.
Darby (seated) with Robson
But Steve Darby isn’t the only English manager in Indian football – in fact, he isn’t even the only English manager in Kolkata. A short walk away in the East Bengal Ground Club offices sits Trevor Morgan, coach of Kingfisher East Bengal and the biggest obstacle to Darby’s hopes of success in India.
Despite a relatively short managing career in Singapore and Australia plus a brief stint as U-23 coach at Hull City, the former Bolton and Bristol Rovers striker has been nothing short of a revelation at Kingfisher East Bengal.
Joining the club last season in the hope of lifting spirits after a disappointing ninth-place finish in the 2009/10 season, Morgan took the club within five points of only their fourth league title in 71 years, finishing second and amassing 21 more points than the contemptible team a season before.
With astute signings and a brand new two-year deal rumoured to have been signed, Morgan will look to build upon the success of last year's second-place finish and go one further.
Kolkata now finds itself hosting not only the most intense rivalry within the Indian game, but also a cerebral battle between the league's two most pioneering foreign coaches. With an average crowd expectancy of around 100,000 spectators at the Salt Lake Stadium – at 120,000 capacity the world's second largest ball-sports arena, shared by the two teams along with Mohammedan SC – the mind struggles to comprehend the expectation and pressure forced upon these two men.
Salt Lake Stadium: rather large
As neither club has managed to win the I-league trophy since its inauguration four seasons ago – each year the title has been won by a team from Goa, India's smallest state – Kolkata locals have taken league derby wins as bragging currency. The rivalry within that colossal stadium signifies Indian football at its finest.
With East Bengal’s continual rise to the peak of Indian football under Morgan, and Mohun Bagan’s acquisition of Asia’s most effective coach, it seems the I-league trophy is sure to find its way to Kolkata sooner rather than later. The real million-pound question is which Englishman will be holding it come the end of the season.
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