During his coaching stint with JCT from 1995 to 2001, Sukhwinder Singh managed all three - Bhaichung Bhutia, IM Vijayan and Sunil Chhetri.
Just how good were Indian football’s legendary strikers Bhaichung Bhutia, IM Vijayan and Sunil Chhetri?
One man is probably better placed than anyone else to tell: former national coach, Sukhwinder Singh Sandhu.
Sukhwinder Singh Sandhu managed all the three top forwards during his coaching stint with JCT Mills, Phagwara from 1995 to 2001.
"As a coach, I'm lucky to have gotten them in my dressing room,” Sukhwinder Singh, who was recently conferred with the Dhyan Chand Award, told the All India Football Federation.
Sukhwinder said the trio played a huge role in popularising Indian football. “All three were equally talented and could win you a match on their day."
While Bhaichung Bhutia and IM Vijayan were in the JCT side that won the first edition of the National Football League in 1997, a 20-year-old Sunil Chhetri would get his first international start in a friendly series against Pakistan under Sukhwinder Singh.
JCT's glorious campaign in National Football League’s inaugural season - where they edged past Churchill Brothers by a point - is fondly remembered by Sukhwinder Singh.
“It was another sweet memory but we had to toil hard to earn that,” he said.
“Every team used to respect our star-studded team - Bhaichung Bhutia, IM Vijayan, Jo Paul Ancheri, Carlton Chapman, Stephen Abarowei, etc. were equally capable of tearing apart any opponent on their days,” Sukhwinder pointed out.
Despite the big names on their roster, JCT’s campaign had gone down to the very last day with their title-win depending on Churchill Brothers’ final day result against the Indian Bank team.
“We didn't have access to the internet those days. Even after beating Dempo 4-1 in Goa, we were perplexed.
“When we got to know that Churchill were held to a 1-1 draw by Indian Bank, we felt speechless,” Sukhwinder added.
After his stint with JCT ended in 2001, Sukhwinder Singh was tasked with coaching the national football team in 2001 as the 2002 FIFA World Cup qualifiers knocked at the door.
Clubbed with the UAE, Yemen and Brunei, the Indian side collected 11 points in six games, missing qualification on goal difference. But, the campaign is best remembered for India’s win against the UAE.
Hosting the big guns in Bangalore in their very first match, Sukhwinder Singh’s side had registered a win over the Emirates with Jules Alberto scoring the solitary goal.
“It was a golden day for Indian football. It changed the perception of Indian football in front of the world,” Sukhwinder Singh said. “When Jules Alberto scored, I still remember how the stadium went berserk.
“UAE pushed harder, they were attacking in numbers but Deepak Mondal, Mahesh Gawli and other defenders soaked in the pressure till the final whistle,” he recalled.