Way before IM Vijayan exploded onto the Indian footballing scene and got the nickname ‘Black Pearl’, there was another gentleman who carried the weight of that name as he danced his way down the flanks, leaving bamboozled defenders in his wake. To this day, Narayanswami Ulaganathan remains one of the most revered wingers to have donned India colours. However, that isn’t only down to his ability as a footballer, but also because of his temperament and demeanour, something that helped him traverse the tricky grounds of top level football for nearly two decades without getting booked even once.
Hailing from Ulsoor in Karnataka, Ulaganathan was the first to score a hat-trick in the final of a Durand Cup, a feat that he achieved in 1974 while playing for Mohun Bagan against JCT. For nearly 30 years, he remained the sole holder of the record until Odafa Okolie matched it, ironically against Mohun Bagan. While that was definitely the match that made him a household name, especially in Kolkata, his story started a few years back with Bangalore Mars and the then Army Base team, 515. He moved on to play for the Controllerate of Inspection Electronics eventually turning out for India in the 1973 Merdeka Cup, even scoring against Cambodia.
However, in the same tournament, he was hit by a terrible injury. A fractured shin-bone and a six-month layoff later, there weren’t many takers for the talented and pacy youngster. In stepped the legendary Sailen Manna who signed him up for Mohun Bagan with the view of building a young squad capable of challenging a star-studded East Bengal outfit. An ordinary first season might not have increased his stock initially, but the 1974 Durand Cup turned out to be the turning point of his career. Ulaganathan scored against East Bengal in the semifinal before vanquishing JCT in the final even as the Kolkata Maidan found a new hero in ‘Ulaga’.
In the couple of years that followed, the soft-spoken Kannadiga helped Mohun Bagan to the IFA League, IFA Shield and Rovers Cup treble before eventually switching allegiances and joining East Bengal in 1978. Another IFA League title followed as he guided the Red and Golds to a Durand Cup and their first ever (joint) Federation Cup win. In 1979, Ulaganathan returned to Mohun Bagan where he formed a lethal partnership with another Southern starlet, Xavier Pius. A plethora of trophies followed suit as he won the IFA League twice, the Durand Cup and the IFA Shield thrice as well as a couple more Federation Cup titles in his 4-year stay with the Mariners. In 1983, he joined Mohammedan Sporting, thus establishing the unique record of playing for all three Kolkata big clubs. A further Federation Cup victory later he returned to Mohun Bagan for a third stint before hanging his boots for good.
At his prime, Ulaganathan was considered to be one of the most intelligent and fleet-footed wingers in India. His crossing, ability to take on and beat defenders and close control were written about in bold letters in most Bengali dailies. A thorough gentleman who always had his emotions in check, Ulaganathan represented India for five years between 1972 and 1977 besides playing for more than a decade in the Mecca of football in India. For that and so much more, the Black Pearl and his lung-busting runs will forever remain in the hearts of football fans from that era.
(with inputs from an article on TheHardTackle)