Football in Punjab did not really take off till the 1960s. It had made its entry into the state in the early 1930s, but had not captured the imagination of the locals like it had in other parts of the country. Undivided Punjab was hockey and wrestling territory and before independence, most of the interest in football resided in parts of the state that eventually merged with Pakistan or in clubs started by migrant Bengalis.
In 1960, a football enthusiast by the name of Lala Dwarka Das Sehgal started a club called Leaders Club Jalandhar and this provided a fillip for the game to develop and grow in the state.
The DCM Trophy in Delhi, one of India’s pre-eminent competitions until 1997, provided a platform for the club and Punjab Police to display their wares and both sides performed well throughout the decade.
Dwarka Das would send his players on exposure trips to Kerala, Goa and Hyderabad and this did his side a world of good. He would find a lot of his players in universities around the state, but his most talented player was a schoolboy.
Inder Singh had already come into the limelight when he finished as the top scorer at the All India School Games in 1960-61. He would play for the club as a ‘guest’ player while they waited for him to complete his schooling. He signed with them in 1962 and his performances at the DCM Trophy caught the attention of the new Indian coach, Harry Wright, who was trying to rebuild the national squad following Syed Abdul Rahim’s death.
He quickly established himself in the side and played a big part in India’s runners-up finish at the 1964 Asian Cup. It was almost inconceivable at the time that a player who played for a ‘smaller’ club from an up-and-coming state in footballing terms would find a regular place in the Indian team. The legend of Inder Singh grew in northern India, and he had his fair share of fans outside Punjab, especially in Delhi.
A Santosh Trophy win is the pinnacle for state sides and Inder was gutted to miss out on Punjab’s first ever win in 1970-71. Four year laters, he made up for that disappointment. He scored an incredible 23 goals in the 1974-75 tourney, helping the side to their second win. It is still a national record. He has 45 goals overall in the competition, also a record.
In 1974, he joined JCT Mills, which was beginning to make a name for itself and Punjab nationally, along with Border Security Force (BSF). He would retire as a player in 1985 following which he was manager of JCT till 2001.
The Merdeka Tournament in Malaysia used to be a regular fixture in India’s international itinerary for a few decades, and impressed by Inder’s performances, then Malaysian Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, reportedly once offered him a five year big money deal to play for the Malaysian national side. The son of the soil turned him down like he had other offers over the years. Inder Singh was Punjab and Indian football through and through, and for a very long time, Punjab football was Inder Singh.