During the first half, the sound of a single bell, tolling ominously in a temple nearby, resonated across the Guru Nanak Stadium, as though inviting witnesses to the final rites of Churchill Brothers, who were playing hosts JCT in a third round NFL match on Wednesday.
The Churchill Brothers’ citadel was placed under constant siege by the marauding JCT musketeers and, at that time, hell’s bells seemed to be ringing for the Goan outfit. However, if only the last man had read the portent, as Wednesday was a day when the last man stood, stood in the face of storm and amidst banana skins, which the JCT forwards were serving, to help Churchill avoid a slip that was looking inevitable in the first half.
The last man in question was the Churchill goalkeeper Vinay Singh, of course, who pulled off six brilliant saves, at least, to deny JCT a famous win, as this compelling end-to-end encounter ended without an end product, goalless. Right from the outset, led by the seductively brilliant Rennedy Singh, JCT went for the jugular. No sooner had the referee placed his whistle back in his pocket after blowing it, than Chidi Edeh placed his right-footer narrowly wide. In the 2nd minute, Rennedy’s swerving free-kick — which is the scourge of goalkeepers — was tipped over the bar by Vinay. JCT’s threat was now simmering from all quarters and in the 10th minute; Sunil Chhetri tried his luck only for Vinay to thwart him.
Two minutes later, Vinay dived acrobatically to his right to deny Rennedy again, who was left wondering why one Singh was being so harsh on the other! Until that moment, a frantic game had passed Churchill striker Odokie Odafa by and the striker resembled a ballroom dancer who had mistakenly wandered into a wrong room. However, with one wondrous touch, he nearly shushed the home crowd in the 25th minute; Odafa shimmied past two defenders and ripped a beauty, but found JCT sentinel Karanjit Singh equal to the task. However, the most heart-stopping moment for Churchill came in the 40th minute when Zenith’s header was cleared off the line by Roque Barreto.
The day’s biggest drama came after the half-time whistle when Odafa started giving referee Subroto Das both barrels and was subsequently yellow-carded, which ensured that he would miss the side’s next game against East Bengal.
In the second half, Churchill emerged with renewed vigour and started taking the game to JCT. In the 56th minute, they had their best chance of the game when Robert and Odafa combined brilliantly but Robert’s ensuing strike was saved heroically by Karanjit. In the 59th, Odafa again seemed to be clean through on goal but Jaspal Singh snaked out a long leg to rescue the situation.
Then in the 78th, the spry Chidi Edeh danced past two defenders, slalomed and unleashed a lethal right footer from inside the Churchill penalty area. But once again, the supple Vinay, both feet off the ground, conjured a miraculous escape as JCT coach Sukhwinder buried his head in his face.
In the dying moments, Churchill’s evening was spoilt a little when George Ekeh injured himself. The Nigerian now looks doubtful for their next game.
Both coaches, Sukhwinder and Karim Bencherifa, agreed that it was Vinay Kumar who had made a difference to the tie. And they were not the last men praising the 28-year-old UP native.