BY TOM GEORGE

India – population of over 1.2 billion people. Second most populous country in the world. Number of Indian-born footballers to have played professionally in England – one. Baichung Bhutia.

The country’s dearth of elite footballing talent should not come as too much of a surprise. It is a well-known fact that, in the slums that litter India’s largest cities, it is not football, but cricket that dominates the lives of the majority of people. However, in recent years, football has slowly begun to weave its way into the public’s conscience. In 2013, the Indian Super League was formed in an attempt to develop the sport within the country. Previously, the greatest players to have plied their trade there were those born domestically, such as Bhutia and the country’s record appearance holder and goalscorer, Sunil Chetri. Since the inception of the new league, the likes of Roberto Carlos, David Trezeguet, Nicolas Anelka, Robert Pires, Alessandro Del Piero and Alessandro Nesta have all ended their respective careers there. Whilst there is still some way to go before the world’s best arrive in the peak of their careers rather than in their twilight, it is hoped that the presence of such high-profile players will inspire generations of Indian footballers for years to come.

The hope is that the new league will help to build on the legacy of Bhutia who, up until now, is indisputably the torchbearer for Indian football. Although Mohammed Salim became the first Indian player to sign a contract with an overseas club when he signed for Celtic in 1936, he played just two games for the Scottish side before returning to India due to homesickness. It would be 63 years until the next Indian star would grace the football fields of Britain. Unlike Salim, who struggled to adjust to life in Britain, Bhutia arrived in a country embracing multiculturalism and remained for three years, in which time he became the first Indian player to score in a European league.

Born in Tinkitam, a small town in India’s Sikkim region which lies at the foot of the Himalayas, Bhutia was an athletic child who, in addition to his footballing ability, represented his school at badminton, basketball and athletics. It was with the ball at his feet that he shone the brightest though, and at 16-years-old Bhutia packed his bags and left behind his home in a remote corner of India to realise his footballing dreams with East Bengal, 500 miles south in Calcutta.

However, he struggled to hold down a spot in the first team, making just nine appearances over two years. In 1995, he left to join the ambitious JCT Mills where he would initially make his name as the club went on to win the 1996-97 India National Football League, with Bhutia finishing as the division’s top goalscorer. That summer, he rejoined East Bengal and picked up where he left off the previous season, netting 15 times in 31 appearances for the club. It was during this second spell at the club where Bhutia became the first and only player to score a hat-trick in the famously heated Kolkata derby, between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan.

Such form attracted the interest of clubs abroad. By this point, Bhutia was already the national team’s youngest goalscorer and consequently, the golden boy of Indian football with 21 goals in 31 international appearances. He had outgrown the Indian game so, naturally, the next step for him was to take his game to Europe, to try and make a name for himself there.

Bhutia attended trials at Fulham, Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion, but nothing came of them. Despite this, the 22-year-old had clearly done enough to impress then Bury boss Neil Warnock, who jumped at the chance to sign the player on a three-year-deal. Upon his arrival, Warnock spoke of his excitement at the potential of his new recruit, “Baichung is an intelligent player. He picks up things quickly. Give him (between) three and six months, then watch him really go”.

Bury had just been relegated from the English First Division on goals scored (the only team to have ever had the misfortune), and the signing of Bhutia, alongside Paul Reid and Sam Collins, was an integral part of Warnock’s plans to bounce back at the first time of asking.

Difficulties in obtaining a work permit meant that Bhutia was forced to wait until early October before making his Shakers debut in a 3-2 victory over Cardiff City. He made an immediate impact, though, when less than fifteen minutes after arriving as a half-time substitute, his volley cannoned off an opposition defender and into the path of Darren Bullock to rifle home Bury’s second goal of the game.

However, it would be another six months before Bhutia scored his first goal for the club. In the meantime, Bury had undergone a managerial change as the controversial Warnock departed Gigg Lane to take the reins at Sheffield United. The men tasked with guiding the Shakers back to the First Division were striker Andy Preece and centre-back Steve Redmond, who agreed to combine the role with their playing commitments.

With an entire nation willing Bhutia on in his mission to make a name for himself in Europe, the pressure must have been immense. An enormous weight will have been taken off his shoulders in April 2000 when he finally became the first Indian to score in a European league, during a drab 1-1 draw at home to Chesterfield. After failing to find the net in his first 12 appearances for the Shakers, the finish was a glimpse of what Bhutia was capable of, finding the bottom right-hand corner with a smart first time shot from 15 yards.

His second goal for the Shakers followed less than three weeks later, in a 2-2 draw at Notts County. This time he displayed his tenacity, harrying the Magpies’ defence into making a series of errors, which ultimately led to Bhutia sliding the ball into an empty net. Full of confidence, Bhutia began 2000/01 where he had left off the previous season, getting off the mark in the third game of the campaign, with a goal that was a sublime piece of individual brilliance, curling a perfect 25-yard effort past a helpless goalkeeper to score his side’s opener in a 2-1 victory over Rotherham United.

However, the good times were short-lived, and Bhutia eventually lost his place in the side over the following weeks and months with Preece stating that the forward was not doing enough to earn a starting berth. With rumours abound that the pair did not see eye to eye, Bhutia was limited to reserve team and LDV Vans Trophy action for much of the season.

Although he had shown glimpses of his talent, the man from Tinkitam did not appear to be making the impression that he had hoped to during his time in the North West. Bhutia admitted himself that he had suffered from loneliness during his time at Bury, missing his family as he attempted to adjust to a new culture, as well as the pace and physicality of the English game.

It looked as though Bhutia’s European dream may have been over in the summer of 2001, when he was heavily linked with a return to Asia. The player himself moved to dispel the speculation, however, claiming that he intended to fight for a first-team spot and see out the final 12 months of his contract at Gigg Lane. Bhutia’s dream of making a name for himself in Europe may not have been over quite yet, but it was certainly hanging by a thread.

Sadly, there was to be no upturn in fortunes, as a persistent knee injury restricted Bhutia to just three appearances in his final season with the Shakers, with his final appearance coming in a 3-0 defeat to Swindon Town in August of 2001. Bury, now in administration, were relegated at the end of the season and Bhutia was released by the club, bringing an end to his three-year spell in English football. He subsequently returned to India where he joined Mohun Bagan.

Back in India, Bhutia struggled to regain fitness initially, but over the course of the next few years reaffirmed himself as the face of Indian football during successful spells with Mohun Bagan and, again, East Bengal. In October 2010, Bhutia, in partnership with former Manchester United assistant Carlos Queiroz, founded the Baichung Bhutia Football Schools in Delhi, with an aim of “providing world-class football coaching in India”. Following Bhutia’s move to Europe, it was initially hoped that other Indian footballers would follow in his footsteps, but alas, it has not been the case just yet.

Bhutia finally hung up his boots on August 24, 2011. His farewell match for the Indian national team was against Bayern Munich, with the German giants coming out on top with a 4-0 victory. Although the result may have been disappointing, if not unsurprising, it was a fitting farewell to Indian football’s golden boy of the past two decades. If proof was ever needed of his standing within the game, the star-studded nature of the Bayern side that day is testament to it. The likes of Arjen Robben, Thomas Muller, Manuel Neuer and Co may have spoiled the party on the pitch, but they were the perfect guests off it, with Phillip Lahm presenting Bhutia with a Bayern shirt that had his name on the back. A fitting end to a groundbreaking career.

His goalscoring record for the Shakers may have been far from prolific, but his work-rate and personality endeared him to the Bury faithful nonetheless. Bhutia’s presence at the club put the Shakers on the map; two close family friends once recalled a tale from their time holidaying in India, where upon telling a local they came from Bury, were met with a nod, and recognition in the form of the words “Baichung Bhutia”.

Today, it may be common to see players from a variety of nations playing as far down as the fourth tier of English football, however, just fifteen years ago it was a different story. Bhutia was one of few foreign stars plying their trade in the English Football League. Whilst he may be a household name back in his native country, for Bury supporters and followers of lower league football in general, Baichung Bhutia will forever be remembered for the days when he sported that iconic Bury home shirt, with Birthday’s scrawled across its front.

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