Nabab Bhattacharya on United SC’s History, Ambitions, Youth Development and Finances of Indian Football.

“Thus, it just so happened, through word of mouth, that Ever-Ready became Eveready, and people started associating our club with that brand. We went to their headquarters and asked them for becoming our official sponsor. They cheekily replied that your club is doing free publicity for us, then why should we be giving you money!” 

An hour’s ride away from the bustling Kolkata metropolis, in the town of Kalyani in the Nadia district of West Bengal, is situated a 97 year old football club. 

United Sports Club is a unique experiment in Indian Football where the numerous stories of this near century year old club are not only of on field prowess but also of success in finding unpolished diamonds and developing them to popular stalwarts of Bengali and Indian Football.

MBFT sat down with current club director Nabab Bhattacharya who has been a part of United SC for the last three decades where he detailed United’s journey in the lower CFL divisions in the initial decades, the revolutionary handover of 1994, the glorious I League days, the financial failure of Indian Football, and their current ambitions on Youth Development. 

A Referee’s Club :

“The Club dates back to the pre independence era. It played primarily in various Kolkata Leagues. There was a referee named Rashbehari Mukherjee, it was his club in those days,” says Nabab Bhattacharya, while sipping on his evening tea through a video conference.

United SC in its first 67 years were mostly in a semi-professional state just like the hundreds of clubs dotting the greater Kolkata region. The club moved within the divisions of the CFL and participated in other city and regional leagues and tournaments. But the club is proud of the fact they survived 20th century war, famines and partitions, which had led to numerous clubs shutting down due to obvious reasons. 

The 1994 Administerial Handover :

It was only in 1994 that the then administration handed over the operational responsibilities of the club to a bunch of young enthusiastic individuals who had huge ambitions, one of whom was Nabab da, as he is endearingly referred to in the Indian Football circuit.

But at that moment, they were lingering in the fifth division of the CFL! What transpired in the next decade is a journey of efficient and intelligent administration which took them to the door of the I League, the topmost division of Indian Football.

The First Taste of Glory & Continued Success :

United SC Maiden IFA Shield Triumph in 2013 (Courtesy: NDTV)

When I asked him to elaborate on United’s first ever major trophy, the otherwise stoic face of Mr. Nabab gave way to a smile of pride and reminiscence. “Yes, it was the All Airlines Gold Cup. The final took place in Haldia (where United had won 2-1 over Mohun Bagan). Back then we had two players by the same name, two boys named Surajit Chakraborty. Others were Devangsh Sinha and Wajid Ali. It was a very young team which had won.” 

After a decade of pushing through the lower divisions and searching and signing some of the best up and coming talent of the time, the club finally got the first of many trophies to come. 

“After that (Gold Cup), we won the IFA Shield twice, the Sikkim Governer’s Gold Cup back when Alok Mukherjee was our coach, the EK Nayanar trophy in Kerala, we won the Durand Cup once and became the runners up another time. We became runners up of the CFL on four occasions, although couldn’t champion it. We also were the semi-finalists of the Federation Cup.”

Ever-Ready, not the battery company Eveready!

United SC were known as EverReady Association till 2006. By then consumer electronics manufacturer Eveready Industries, which had started from Kolkata in 1905, had started to gain popularity throughout the country. They currently hold a near 50% market share in dry cell battery sales.

“Thus, it just so happened, through word of mouth, that Ever-Ready became Eveready, and people started associating our club with that brand. Thus, we went to their headquarters and asked them for becoming our official sponsor. They cheekily replied that your club is doing free publicity for us, then why should we be giving you money.” 

“That’s when we decided to change the name to United so that we could attract title sponsors and we were successful in doing so too. First Chirag, then Prayag. We could make a standard I League team and we had a good few years in the top flight.”

The I League Premiership, so close and then so far :

United SC vs East Bengal FC, Nov 2013 (Courtesy: NDTV)

After getting promotion through the NFL 2nd division, United had now found themselves in the first ever season of the I League in 2008/09, which arose from the rechristening of the NFL. A player and managerial legend of Bengali football, Amal Dutta was welcomed as head coach and United finished 8th in the league with 6 wins and 8 draws from 22 games. 

From the very trenches of the CFL to a respectable performance as a fresher in the top flight of Indian Football, the years of intense hard work had now etched its mark as a commendable rebuild story, defeating Vasco 4-1 away on the final day of their first season. Other wins came against JCT, Air India, Vasco (at home), Mohammedan and Mahindra United. 

In their second season they finished 8th again, now with 32 points from 4 more games played due to the addition of Shillong Lajong, Chirag Kerala, Salgaocar and Pune FC against the relegation of Mohammedan and Vasco, now under another legend of the game Subrata Bhattacharya. 

Ahead of the 2010/11 season, United SC made headlines by securing the signing of none other than Sunil Chettri on transfer deadline day, after his stint with MLS side Kansas City ended. Sunil went on to score 7 goals in 7 appearances in his solitary season with United where the yet again finished 8th with 29 points. 

They had lost only 7 games that seasons, but they had issues finishing chances and sustaining leads and they happened to draw 14 times and win only 5. Ahead of the 2011/12 season Chirag stepped away, and in came Prayag who in two transfer windows invested heavily in the club. In the pre 12/13 season transfer window, the club had an all time high budget of 20 crs, surpassing all other teams in India as reported by Novy Kapadia.

They bought in Ranti Martins, Bello Razaq, Carlos Hernandez, Subrata Paul, Gourmangi Singh, the last three names for 1.5, 1.1 and 1.05 crores respectively. It was an open challenge to the big two of Kolkata, a “come fight us” statement from the rejuvenated and motivated United side who were soon entering the peak of their powers under Dutchman Eelco Schattorie.

The USC team which played in the 2012 I League (Courtesy: Sportskeeda)

The began the 12/13 season with a 5-1 win over Air India, and then a 2-1 win over none other than Mohun Bagan. They suffered their first defeat from Shillong Lajong who came back from a 0-1 then a 1-2 trail. Then came I League’s second highest margin ever. 

A 10-1 win over United Sikkim (the first being 14-0 by Dempo over United Sikkim too). 5 goals by Ranti Martins, 2 by Carlos Hernandez, one each from Mohammed Rafique, Malsawmtluanga and an own goal by Michael Rodiguez. United then had a poor spell and collected only 7 points from 10 games, which included a 1-0 win over East Bengal. 

They came back and won most games but that mid season slump cost them a top 3 finish, if not the I League itself, as United finished 4th, 11 points off Premiers Churchill Brothers and only 3 points below East Bengal. Losing out on the unthinkable was excruciating for the club officials but United SC well and truly had announced themselves to Indian football, or not, as the downfall happened to be just as sudden as the success.

No License, No Participation.

“In 2013/14, on the pretext of club licensing issues, we were forced out of the I League. At that time we did not have financial partners. And in about the same time, the ISL was about to begin, but no player was signing to play in the ISL.” 

“So AIFF, under the leadership of the “great” Praful Patel and “great” Kushal Das, they decided that two teams would get relegated. Out of the 120 players who got affected from the four clubs, around 70 to 80 of them proceeded to sign for ISL teams. It was more about a conspiracy. We never got relegated from the I League,” Nabab Bhattacharya reaffirmed.

Before the beginning of the 2013/14 season, Prayag due to their own financial troubles had moved away, leaving United with no finances to satisfy the stringent AFC Club Licensing criteria which got strictly imposed by the AIFF with no ifs and buts. 

By then, United had grown a passionate fanbase, they were the talk of the town, rather the country. A new face embarrassing the big established names, challenging for the title of the top division, but it all came crashing down to these multitude of factors.

On the Financial Failure of Indian and Bengal Football :

Nabab Bhattacharya with Ruud Gullit (via FB)

“Where is the popularity? When you see the viewership on Disney Hotstar during club and National games, what are the numbers? Popularity is there, but only in few spots: Kolkata, Kerala, North East.”

The areas in which football is most popular also happens to be regions of comparative lesser financial muscle, which has been an important factor, explains Nabab Bhattacharya.

“No one has any money in the North East. There is no (relatively) big industry. Thus they don’t have the people to invest there. They get substantial government aid, ranging from 1.5 to 2.5 crores, that’s why they are being able to play, else clubs like NEROCA and TRAU would have shut down long back.” 

“In their attempt to lift up the North East, the sacrificed West Bengal. Where are the teams from Bengal? Only three, Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, Mohammedan, only due to them Bengal’s football reputation remains in the country. Beyond those three, there is nothing, no conversation, no presence. Year by year ISL attendances are plummeting, why should there be investments?”

“In Kolkata, only Mohun Bagan has money now. Others are struggling. Others have just managed to find investors, in whatever method, be it political influence or otherwise, they managed the investors, that’s why they are surviving.”

Moving on and focusing back to the Grassroots

A youth team of United SC (Courtesy: @bleedpurpleUSC via X)

“We currently have residential and non-residential academies in Murshidabad (district), Barrackpore, Siliguri and a few more. We want to have academies in all over West Bengal. Many interested parties talk to us. If we find their infrastructure good enough, we decide to become their partners.”

“We also partner with CBSE, ICSE and WB State Board Schools in some places so as to ensure that the academic education of the players.”

“We get thankless support from the Kalyani Municipality. The Municipality Chairperson Nilimesh Roy Chowdhury, he has helped us out numerous times and thus we are now the only AIFF Accredited Elite Academy from West Bengal. So now the only job is to improve ourselves.”

On Youth Development in Bengal and Indian Football :

“Mali is playing the finals of the U17 World Cup. Croatia, with a population of 39 lakhs have played the world cup six times, reached the semis and the final too. One example I provided is a European country, good infrastructure, the other is an African country, they suffer, they struggle, but in the U17 World Cup they are getting into the finals of the U17 World Cup consecutively.”

“So if someone can play the World Cup six times with 39 lakhs, and then Bengal which has a population of 12 crores, it is evident something is flawed with our planning. That is exactly what we (United SC) are trying to focus on.” 

“We dream to see 100 homegrown Bengali players in the top divisions of Indian football from our academies. I can say with certainty that most of the hundreds of the academies of the country don’t produce homegrown players, don’t develop talent from their own state. They go to North East, they take their players. They come to Bengal; they take their players.”

“Then they are benefitting from the CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) money while we have to do everything from our own pockets, and we prioritise that nearly all of our players are of our own state.”

Developing talent is priority, I League 2 and CFL only to showcase the talent :

Current USC I League 2 squad is coached by Belgian Steve Herbots (Courtesy: @bleedpurpleUSC via X)

“We play I League 2 and CFL only to show case them. I need a platform to show everyone the talent we develop and give them a taste of the competition. Else how will people know that how well my players are?”

United SC’s principles and ambitions are rather different from most other clubs who are primarily competition focused. United are not necessarily about that. Competitions are secondary and are only to serve as a platform for the homegrown players. 

United SC are on the rise again, but ever since the I League exit, financial troubles are still present. Their sister club Pathachakra FC are funded by the Mamoni and Ashiyana Group while Nabab Bhattacharya himself is the Owner and Managing Director of Krishi Bharati, who specialise in agricultural products. 

However, that can obviously cannot support the running of the only Elite Academy of West Bengal. While big stalwarts have little to no interest in developing local in-house talent in a structure fashion, United SC serves as a beacon of hope to a trouble Bengal football structure marred by a multitude of degrading factors, a problem which is common throughout the entire country. 

From teams beginning as low as Under 5, an age which all football development experts agree on is the right age to start crucial aspects of football training such as ball mastery, to then the stages of U9, U13, U15, U17, Reserves along with the main team which participates in the I League 2, where they currently stand 4th with 7 points from 6 games which included wins over current 2nd spot Sporting Club Bengaluru and Maharashtra Oranje. 

18 year old homegrown wonderkid Sahil Harijan currently is the top scorer of the league with 6 goals to his name. While there is a lot of controversy and misunderstanding involved, Nabab Bhattacharya is confident that their U17 team will get qualification to the National Stage of the AIFF U17 Elite League. 

Nabab Bhattacharya had previously famously remarked that the fertilisers are being spread on the leaves and fruits, not the roots of the tree that is Indian Football. With such institutional issues, independent clubs like United continue to struggle because of their pure and honest love for the game, in their attempt to save football in Bengal, and carry on their own legacy well past the 100 year mark into a future of hope and success. Follow MBFT on TwitterFacebookInstagramYoutube, Telegram & Whatsapp to stay updated with all the Mohun Bagan News & Updates. Joy Mohun Bagan !

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