Forty years ago (in 1966), Gorkha Brigade of Dehra Dun annexed India’s oldest tournament, the Durand with an enthralling display of speedy, attacking football, never surpassed and rarely equalled. On their way to their first ever Durand triumph, Gorkha Brigade had some memorable victories. They beat New Delhi Heroes 5-0 in the first round on December 13. In the 1966 Durand tournament, 40 teams participated, in the over month long tournament. So the Gorkha Brigade had a long wait of over 12 days till their next match on Christmas day. In their second round match, they trounced Leaders Club of Jalandhar, which included the famous Inder Singh, by a thumping margin of 4-1. In the pre-quarter finals, held on Dec. 31, RAC Bikaner held them to a 1-1 draw. However in the replay, on January 2, Gorkhas turned on the magic and trounced Magan Singh’s RAC Bikaner 8-0. In the quarter final match on January 5, played as a knock out round in those days, Gorkha Brigade beat the first Indian club to win the Durand tournament the famous Mohammedan Sporting 4-0. Then they tumbled holders and mighty Mohun Bagan 2-0 in the semi finals in a memorable encounter on a cold Sunday afternoon on January 8, 1967. In the final held three days later, they beat tenacious Sikh Regimental Centre 2-0.
Gorkha Brigade owed their triumph in the 1966 Durand tournament to their brilliant quintet of forwards, outside right Birkha Bahadur, inside right Ranjit Thapa, nippy centre forward Bhupender Singh Rawat, diminutive inside left Tikka Ram Gurung and wily left winger Amar Bhadur. Their skill, speed and goal scoring abilities were a source of wonder and delight. The indefatigable Nar Singh as left half ably supported them. The Gorkhas played in the old-fashioned 3-2-5 system, three defenders, two midfielders and five forwards. However Ranjit Thapa and Tika Ram’s versatility and work rate enabled them to back pedal and bolster midfield when under pressure and also initiate counter-attacks. So though Gorkha Brigade started in a 3-5-2 system, they frequently functioned in a 3-3-4 or 3-4-3 formation.
Overall Gorkha Brigade scored 26 goals and conceded two during their 1966 Durand triumph. Short-statured Bhupinder Singh Rawat became a crowd favourite because of his blistering speed. He would hover around the goal area, drift into vacant space and use his speed to breakthrough and score with deft placements or diving headers. With his instinct for goal, he was the poor man’s Paolo Rossi. Nicknamed "Scooter" by his adoring fans, Bhupender Singh Rawat had the galloping speed of a Carlton Chapman or a Syed Rahim Nabi and in the box, the cool finish of Bhaichung Bhutia. Another highly acclaimed player was left winger Amar Bahadur noted for his silky dribbling skills and immaculate crosses from the left flank. He was not an old-fashioned winger but could cut in and score goals as well. A quality winger, Amar Bahadur was more versatile and quicker than Alvito D’ Cunha at his best.
Ranjit Thapa, a box to box midfielder or playmaker as inside forward impressed with his accurate passes, powerful long range shots with both feet and exemplary work-rate. Ranjit Thapa, then a mere Naik in the Army felt that the win against Mohun Bagan in the semi finals was the most memorable match. Initially Bagan controlled proceedings due to the dribbling skills of internationals P. Kannan, Ashoke Chatterjee and Arumainayagam. Their stout defence consisting of Jarnail Singh, stalwart C. Prasad and Sushil Sinha managed to blunt the Gorkha attack. Just before half time, Gorkhas changed their approach play and used one touch football to launch attacks. Bhupinder Rawat broke the ice with a dream goal. He bravely flung himself in front of the lunging Jarnail and scored with a diving header at the near post of a Birkha Bahadur cross. Midway through the second half, Gorkha Brigade sealed victory, scored with a snap shot, a rising left footer which deceived Bagan’s international custodian Prodyut Burman.
The 1966 triumph by Gorkha Brigade was significant in more ways than one. Ranjit Thapa says that sheer will power and collective endeavour, enabled them overcome the fancied and rich clubs. The team had no coach and senior players conducted practise. Diet money was meagre at Rs. 8 per day per player. After practise, refreshment was limited to Rs. 1.50 per head, which got the players a samosa, a slice of bread and a cup of tea.
In post-Independence India, it was the third and final time that two teams from the Services would meet in the Durand final. The earlier occasions were in the 1958 Durand final, when Madras Regimental Centre (MRC) Wellington beat Gorkha Brigade 2-0 in the replayed final after the first match ended in a 1-1 draw and in 1955 when MRC beat Indian Air Force 3-2. Gorkha Brigade’s triumph was also significant as for the first time a team won the prestigious Durand Cup, without any international players in their ranks. Later Ranjit Thapa, Amar Bahadur and Bhupender Rawat would regularly represent India. This trio made their international debut in the 1969 Merdeka tournament. In the post-Independence era, no team has won the Durand Cup playing such entertaining football and by a decisive margin against the leading club sides of the country.
The impact of Gorkha Brigade’s triumph was immediate. Mafatlal Mills. Bombay snapped up five players for the 1967 season. Ranjit Thapa, Bhupender S. Rawat, Tika Ram Gurung , Amar Bahadur and Bhoj Bahadur Malla all joined the Bombay club for what was then considered a good salary of Rs. 700 per month. Goalkeeper Alam Singh Pradhan also quit and joined Reserve Bank of India, which played in the Harwood League in Bombay. Skipper Birkha Bahadur got promoted and quit playing. So when Gorkha Brigade next won the Durand Tournament, three years later in 1969, only left midfielder Nar Singh was present from the victorious 1966 squad.
For the 1966 Durand tournament, Gorkha Brigade arrived with a squad of 37 players who were billeted at the Red Fort barracks. In those days registration of 20 players was not compulsory for army teams. The Gorkhas trained at the grounds outside Red Fort. The squad of 37 players gradually got whittled down and a settled group of 16 players emerged. Alam Singh Pradhan became the goalkeeper after three others got injured. Ravindra Vora started in the first match against N.D. Heroes but could not play later due to injury. During the 1966 Durand tournament Gorkha Brigade played in the 3-2-5 system.
Their line-up for the final was as follows:
Alam Singh Pradhan
Luxman Singh, Narendra Sahi and Tulbir Thapa
Bhoj Bahadur Malla and Nar Singh
Birkha Bahadur (capt.), Ranjit Thapa, Bhupinder Singh Rawat, Tika Ram Gurung and Amar Bahadur.
Gorkha Brigade won the Durand tournament once again in 1969 but since then have just reached the semi final once in 1983, when they lost 0-3 to Mohun Bagan.
Written: May, 2006
The author is a TV Commentator and football writer.