With the death of PK Banerjee -- Pradip da to colleagues and proteges that he ended up mentoring in a career that spanned half a century -- Indian football lost one of its greatest supporters, cheerleaders and innovators on Friday.
Footballers who played under him -- starting from Bata in Kolkata in 1969, through the Indian football team, Kolkata giants East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, right up to his last stint as technical director with Mohammedan Sporting in 2003 -- remember him most for his man-management skills, and exceptional knowledge on all things in football and beyond.
"We had a running joke and also often pulled his leg, saying that there's no question in the universe that Pradip Banerjee doesn't have an answer to," says former goalkeeper Kalyan Chaubey, whom Banerjee coached as director at the Tata Football Academy and later with East Bengal, where Chaubey won the best goalkeeper award for the National Football League season of 1997-98. "He could talk about any subject, and I think among coaches and mentors there's nobody who comes close to being as learned and well-informed about not just football, but about things off the field."
Kartick Sett was one of the strikers in the Indian team when the 1982 Asian Games came to New Delhi. A pay dispute with the Kolkata clubs led to some of the bigger players leaving the camp, but Sett was one of the youngsters who stayed behind, and became one of Banerjee's favourite players. "He used to guide us in every way possible. I used to run really fast, and he would tell me, 'You run faster than Bidesh [left winger Bidesh Bose], kintu Bidesh ke bolish na (but don't tell him that). He's senior to you, and he might get hurt by that,'" chuckles Sett.
Sett scored two goals for India at the 1982 Asian Games, helping them beat Malaysia 1-0 and hold China 2-2, but only played eight matches for the country. However, he wrote his name into history books with the first Kolkata derby goal at the Yubabharati Krirangan (Salt Lake Stadium) in 1984, helping a relatively weak East Bengal team beat Mohun Bagan 1-0 to lift the IFA Shield.
"He used to take me aside and put all these medallions, holy symbols and flowers against my forehead. All the other players would tease me, asking me why I would let him do that, and I always maintained that Pradip da was like a father to me," says Sett. "He probably realised, looking at our team then, that whatever had to be done, was down to me. So he used to take me aside and give me a lot of inputs and attention. 'Ki khaabi? Kokhon uthbi? Ki bhabe thakbi (What will you eat? When will you wake up? How will you stay)?' he would ask."
Chaubey says that while most of Bengal knows Banerjee as the coach who popularised the phrase 'vocal tonic' -- think of it as a prototype of Alex Ferguson's hairdryer treatment -- he himself met Banerjee at a time he was approaching his 60s, and hence took a more mellow, calm approach to coaching. "Our houses were quite close by, hardly two or three kilometres apart. His wife Arati -- we called her Jethima (Aunty) -- was a fabulous cook," remembers Chaubey. "She would often give me a call in the evening, and tell me that there were egg rolls or kebabs at home, and she would call me over."
Over these evening sessions, Banerjee would take the opportunity to chat with Chaubey and point out little tweaks to technique and strategy that he may have noted during the morning practice session or in the previous match played, something Chaubey calls "like an extra class taken informally". "Manoranjan Bhattacharya was the coach then and Pradip da was the technical director. So he would be careful never to say anything that could come across as contrary to what the coach had been saying," says Chaubey, who says these visits and chats kept him going through the 1997-98 season. "I was around 21-22 around that time, and speaking to him informally in these situations about two or three times a week was invaluable for me."
Chaubey remembers having last met Banerjee during former India goalkeeper Sumit Mukherjee's daughter's wedding a little over a year ago. "He was using a wheelchair but he was in a really chatty mood. He was asking everybody to come visit him at home," says Chaubey.
For Sett, the loss hasn't sunk in just yet. "Pradip da was full of stories. I am so indebted to him, because when I started out I had nobody else to guide me or to tell me what were the right steps to take."
"It's like losing your father."