Just as Chathunni remembers vividly, the lad who could play in an array of positions along the backline, whom he promptly signed up for the erstwhile Viva Kerala, Ansar too found Dhanarajan Radhakrishnan, at 39, to be a champion footballer.
Only, while Chathunni saw Dhanarajan at the threshold of what would later become an enterprising football journey strewn with accomplishments as emblematic as lifting the prestigious Durand Cup and the Santosh Trophy, young Ansar discovered ‘Dhana’, as he is fondly called, in his final moments on a football pitch.
After not giving the young striker of Sastha Thrissur an inch for 27 minutes, Dhanarajan, the veteran who was representing FC Perinthalmanna in the pre-quarterfinals of a seven’s football tournament at Perinthalmanna in Malappuram collapsed. He was rushed to a private hospital only a stone’s throw away from the ground and there, after 20 minutes, Dhana was pronounced dead from a cardiac arrest. A champion who lived for the game perished doing what he loved the most.
Born into a humble household at Kallepully in Palakkad district in Kerala, Dhana had to work as a helper at an automobile workshop before finding his true calling on the football pitch. He made a living on the seven’s grounds but it was difficult still as footballers were not paid much back then. Even after he made it to the Viva Kerala team, the wages were reportedly no more than Rs 5000 per month at one point. “He persisted and grew as a footballer,” said Gokulam Kerala technical director Bino George, who was then an assistant coach at Viva. Bino remembers playing alongside him at Power Depot, a local club in Thrissur from where Chathunni had scouted Dhanarajan.
It was not merely footballing skills, a penchant to play along both flanks and at the heart of the defence that Chathunni observed in Dhana. “He had a unique character that stood out, both on the pitch and away from it as well,” Chathunni said.
“I have many disciples, several of them are great players now but without a doubt, Dhanarajan was the most disciplined. I can proudly say, the best I’ve coached,” Chathunni reminisced while attending the player’s cremation along with hundreds of teammates, friends, and fans, in Palakkad on Monday evening.
Alongside him was one of Dhanarajan’s closest friends in the game. “Dhanarajan was more than just a trustworthy defender,” said former Mohun Bagan midfielder Denson Devadas, who probably knew Dhanarajan better than anybody else. They were teammates when Viva first qualified to the I-League, they were teammates again at United Sports in Kolkata and even after Dhanarajan was snatched away by Mohun Bagan, the duo remained roommates.
“He was a wonderful captain too, whom you know is guarding your back all the time even without you looking back,” Denson said. Indeed, it was under his leadership that Viva first attained promotion to the I-League, that United Sports gained their promotion, and that Mohammedan Sporting lifted the prestigious Durand Cup in 2013.
Dhanarajan, clearly, was more popular in Kolkata than in Kerala for his achievements on the maidans there. “Look at it this way, how many players from Kerala have gone to Kolkata, most of them fizzle out after a season or two. But Dhanarajan not only played for all major clubs in Kolkata, he was very popular there. That alone proves his quality” Denson added.
“He was too good you know … a coach’s delight, a teammates’ strength,” Chathunni’s voice trembled. “Maybe because he was too good that he was taken sooner,” the veteran added.
Dhanarajan is survived by wife Archana and daugher Sivani.
Dhanarajan memorial match on January 19
Former football stars, including Vijayan, Jo Paul Ancheri, NP Pradeep, Sushanth Mathew, Denson Devadas, Asif Zaheer, Noushad and Abdul Hakkim will come together for a Dhanarajan memorial fundraiser event at Nurani in Palakkad on January 19.