Kerala’s love affair with football runs deep. Even before the formation of the state, Thiruvalla Pappan (1948) and Kottayam Saleh (1952) represented India at the Olympics and greats like SS Narayan, T Abdul Rahman and O Chandrashekar carried that torch into the early 1960s.
However, what followed was a lull. West Bengal confirmed their status as the cradle of Indian football while Kerala’s talent factories dried up. What finally brought an end to Kerala football’s almost decade-long slumber was a Kalamassery-based tyre company’s tryst with the beautiful game. Alind Kundara, headlined by the likes of Moideen Kutty and PV Ramakrishnan, had captured the imagination of football fans in the 1960s while teams like KSRTC, AG’s Office, and FACT were also active. But it was the Premier Tyres Football Team that once again returned Kerala to the top of Indian football starting 1971. “By that time, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Goa, Hyderabad and even Tamil Nadu had overtaken Kerala when it came to top clubs and players,” recalled TA Jaffar, who won the Santosh Trophy thrice – once as a player (1973) and twice as a coach (1992 and 93).
“That is when Premier Tyres came into the picture and through the club’s efforts, Kerala quickly established itself as an epicentre of football again,” said Jaffar, who played for the team and later coached the Premier Tyres.
“We were offered twice the money that a government official used to make then. So they managed to assemble some of the best footballers in the state,” said KP Williams, another of Premier’s celebrated stars. Williams and Jaffar were joined by the likes of Victor Manjila, KP Sethumadhavan, CC Jacob, and Xavier Pius – all star players from the state, but none yet to reach the national team radar. Olympian Rahman was brought from Kozhikode to become the club’s first coach. And together they straightaway became one of the most feared teams in the country. Premier Tyres had huge talent across the board. Manjila and Sethumadhavan went on to become the country’s top goalkeepers at that time. “When the starting 11 was picked, the coach used to leave the goalkeeper’s position blank. He would ask me and Sethu to decide who among us will be the No. 1,” said former India international Manjila.
“If it wasn’t for Premier Tyres and Olympian Rahman, I would have ended up just a university player,” said Jacob who was one of the best left-wing backs in the country during his heyday. “Rahman was a great player and a great coach. He was a strict taskmaster and wanted to make sure we were at the peak of our physical states,” he added. Unfortunately for Rahman, Premier Tyres failed to win a single title during his reign quite bafflingly despite playing in more than 10 finals. When they finally managed to win, they won three in a year – the Chakola Cup in Thrissur, the GV Raja Trophy in Thiruvananthapuram and the Golden Jubilee Trophy in Kollam in 1973-Rahman’s former assistant, KG Vijayan, was handling the team.
“We defeated some of India’s best players to win those silverware. We were also a force to reckon with in the Federation Cup, but were unlucky not to win it,” said CD Francis, who remains the only player to score a double hattrick in the Federation Cup having netted six times in Premier Tyres’ 7-3 win over Manipur’s Young Physique Club at Guwahati in 1979.
Not able to match the financial muscle of clubs from other parts of India, Premier Tyres was all about maximizing resources. “We had a good ground to practice on, even though it was a half court. But the facilities we had at our disposal were a far cry from what the players enjoy these days. Even when compared to the Kolkata clubs of those days, our fa- cilities were very much limited,” said Jacob. Yet, the team was all the rage back then. “Ask any Malayali over 50 and they would have heard of Premier Tyres. Some would even go on to name the first 11,” said Manjila. “I knew people who would buy newspapers just to turn to the sports page and check on Premier Tyres’ match,” said Jacob. Unlike its founding, Premier Tyres’ story did not end with a bang, but rather in a whimper. In 1978, Xavier left for Mohun Bagan while Dinakaran Premappa, Premnath and NM Najeeb joined Mohammedan Sporting. The following year, Francis also left for Kolkata to join East Bengal. The management tried to replace the departed players with youngsters, but not many managed to live up to the standards set by their predecessors.
Premier Tyres played their last match in 1984 as the company ceased all sporting activities including its volleyball team that once boasted of Jimmy George and Jose George in its ranks. “The 1970s were indeed the golden age of Kerala football. We were champions in the all-India inter-university championship and the Santosh Trophy. Premier Tyres was at its peak. So, it is heartening to see Kerala securing the inter-university, Santosh Trophy and I-League titles as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Premier Tyres,” said Manjila. After Apollo Tyres acquired a financially stressed Premier in 1995, the company has faded from Malayali’s memory, but its glamorous football team still holds a special place in the hearts of Kerala football fans.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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