I call up Subhas Bhowmick for the promised adda on a Sunday. Mirabai Chanu has won us our Olympic silver-lining the day before. A garrulous Bhowmick speaks for an hour and forgets about
the condition he had laid down — no comment on the present scenario. In between he smokes seven cigarettes to my four. “It helps me think positive. My guru in football coaching Johan Cruyff [Dutchman] was a smoker,” he says.
At 71, Bhowmick hasn’t lost any of his devil-may-care attitude. We are still on cigarettes. He is talking about how in early June, Italian club Lazio announced chain-smoker Maurizio Sarri’s appointment as head coach with an emoji of a burning cigarette. “Football marketing at its best,” says Bhowmick.
He continues, “I was 19 when I joined East Bengal. After one practice session, Jyotish Chandra Guha (the then club secretary) called me to his room. My seniors told me I was in for trouble. Guha asked if I smoked. I said yes. Quit, he shouted. I said I couldn’t. Next, he asked me which brand I smoked. I replied and he barked, ‘Switch to an expensive brand.’ From that day on I had to do 100 sprints and 20 rounds of the ground. I can still hold my breath for two minutes.”
Bhowmick speaks at length about Guha and P.K. Banerjee and how they shaped him. “After a practice session, Guha asked me to play right-out and not centre-forward. I became a different player. But the first four matches for East Bengal in 1969 were a nightmare. I made a trunk-call to my father, who told Guha I wanted to leave. Guha called me to his house and said I would not have to play the match against Aryan. He took me to the ground, asked me to do the warm-up. Actually, everything was being stage-managed. My name was included in the list last minute so I did not lose my nerve. That match I scored a goal from the half-line and everything changed for me.”
The story about P.K. Banerjee goes like this. Says Bhowmick, “I had a knee injury, Mohun Bagan turned its back on me and I had no clue how to deal with the depression that followed. I contemplated suicide, started drinking. One day, out of nowhere a car drove up before the Eden Gardens and Santo Mitra (former East Bengal captain) asked me to get in. Ajay Srimani (football secretary of the club) took me to Banerjee’s Kaiser Street flat. Banerjee made me promise I would not touch beer. I was sent to Katihar in Bihar, where I trained and then signed for East Bengal.” This was 1973.
During his staggered tenure with East Bengal, Bhowmick scored 83 goals. But he could not find the target during the 5-0 hammering of Mohun Bagan in the 1975 IFA Shield final. He adds, “I also missed a chance to score a hat-trick in the 1969 Rovers Cup final. Guha admonished me. It took me years to understand why he did so.”
Bhowmick’s foray into football coaching was by chance. “I was writing for a Bengali sports weekly when the IFA top boss Pradyut Datta asked me to coach Bengal.” Thereafter, he got a chance to coach India and, in 1991, Mohun Bagan offered him the coaching job.
According to Bhowmick, that one-year stint brought on the realisation that he was not ready for club coaching. It got him thinking how Banerjee would have dealt with a certain situation. “He was my reference point.”
As East Bengal coach, Bhowmick has won 12 trophies, including the 2003 Asean Cup. He recalls, “Before the tournament I was Mr Subhas Bhowmick for Vijay Mallya, after it I became Subhasda. Those days, East Bengal’s wins were so regular that at times it became boring.”
Kingfisher East Bengal and McDowell Mohun Bagan were part of the Mallya stable when, on an invitation, Bhowmick travelled to one of his farmhouses in Goa. Recounts Bhowmick, “I asked him why he spent crores on the clubs. He explained the economics. Normally, he would have had to spend hundreds of crores on advertisements, but as the principal sponsor he had the name of his two premium products embossed on team jerseys. In Rs 8-10 crores he was reaching millions of Indians.”
Bhowmick adds, “If Hari Mohan Bangur (MD of Shree Cement) spares 30 minutes, I can tell him ways to market football... I understand the club’s reluctance to sign the final agreement with Shree Cement. I have discussed the term sheet and final agreement with a top lawyer and we both agreed there are discrepancies.”
Does that mean he supports the feuding supporters? He replied, “These are all social media revolutionaries. We have seen the passion of real fans. In 1969, when East Bengal drew with Port Commissioners in a CFL match, we were all cooped up in the tent till 11pm. They wouldn’t let us come out. In 2003, on a high after winning the Asean Cup, we were out of the Federation Cup after losing to Vasco SC. Fans at the Salt Lake Stadium spat on me. Those same fans had waited for hours at the Calcutta airport when we landed with the Asean Cup.”
The interview is nearing its end. Any regrets, I ask. Pause, and he replies: “Discipline would have prolonged my playing career. Otherwise, I have no regrets.” True. Live life king size. Nobody knows that better than Subhasda.
1950: Bhowmick is born in Katihar in Bihar
1969: Joins East Bengal from Rajasthan Club
1970: Is part of the Asian Games bronze-medal winning squad
1971: Scores a hat-trick against Philippines in the Merdeka Cup
1979: Calls it quits as a player
2003: As a coach, masterminds East Bengal’s Asean Cup triumph
2004: Guides East Bengal to the NFL trophy, their last
2009: East Bengal concede five goals against Mohun Bagan in an I-League match
2018: Last major assignment with East Bengal