As any Indian football fan growing up in the 1990s would vouch for, the Kerala Police team that won back-to-back Federation Cup titles at the start of the decade was a dream team. Their young striker, IM Vijayan, who turns 50 today, stood out even then -- lithe of frame, but an outrageous talent in attack.
He made headlines immediately, among one of the first players from that team poached by a bigger club, as Mohun Bagan took him away almost immediately after the 1991 final was won against the team then called Mahindra & Mahindra.
Henry Menezes, who was part of the Mahindra team around the time and saw Vijayan at his first national camp in 1990-91, remembers an "unpredictable" player who could score incredible goals from unusual positions. "The skills that he possessed don't come in a normal person's dictionary. Suppose he was not facing the goal, he could still read and hit the target," remembers Menezes. "He used to stand and chat with the defenders, asking them, 'Kaisa hai, ghar pe sab kaise hain (How are you? How is everything at home?)' He was a very clever player."
While making a documentary on the history of Indian football in 2008, my colleagues and I came across some solid archival footage of Vijayan in action from the mid-90s. There were some truly wondrous goals and it gave a perfect picture of why he must have been a nightmare to come up against -- with Vijayan, you didn't know which way he was likely to turn and when he was going to let rip with a shot.
Our team also caught up with the man himself, who was self-effacing in how he assessed his career. "I never knew anything about studies or any other work. All I had was football," he would say. "We didn't have a house of our own when I started playing. Football gave me enough money to build a house, and earn a name for myself. That's my big achievement."
Menezes says that when he first came into the national team, Vijayan would sometimes fall short of clothes to go out in. He would then nick some from his senior colleagues. "When he got caught, he would make it up to us by washing our clothes," says Menezes. "He would get bullied, but he was always so humble. Always up to some mischief, and I think these type of people are the most creative players. I am yet to see a player like him."
In 2016, when ESPN India was launching, we picked Vijayan as part of the jury to pick the Top 20 moments of Indian sport. His knowledge of Indian sport was impressive -- he picked three Olympics-related moments in his top five, had only two football-related moments in the top 20, and also had Wilson Jones' world championship in billiards in 1958 among his picks. There was no grouse against cricket -- India's World Cup win of 1983 was his third favourite moment, while the World T20 win in 2007 (which eventually didn't make our top 20) took 18th place.
An idea of his popularity came during my first year as a broadcaster, at the 2005 Santosh Trophy in Kochi. At 36, Vijayan was a peripheral member of the Kerala squad, which claimed third place overall. It was his final competitive outing in the sport, and the stands used to reverberate every time they caught a glimpse of even a tuft of his hair.
It was nothing really, maybe a sign that he was about to come on as a substitute, or maybe that he was just bored and needed to stretch. Either way, Kerala loved him, and they made sure that was established loud and clear.
IM Vijayan's India record
His tally of 40 was the highest for India at the time of his international retirement in 2003. It has since been passed by Bhaichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri
Vijayan holds the record for the fastest goal in internationals for India - 12 seconds against Bhutan in 1999