'Everything has changed'

N. P. Pradeep is over the moon after scoring the winning goal against Syria in the Nehru Cup final.-PTI

A versatile player, Pradeep offers many options and is often the key man in set-piece situations.

Life has been a series of celebrations and felicitations for N. P. Pradeep after he scored the stunning goal that gave India its maiden Nehru Cup in New Delhi the other day. But seven years ago, he could not even afford a pair of football boots.

“My dad, a timber loader, slogged hard but often, it was a big struggle for us,” said the 23-year-old footballer who hails from Moolamattom in hilly Idukki. “In fact, my friends bought me the shoes. And my club, Unity Soccer in Thodupuzha, pooled in money for my passport when I was picked for the under-19 Indian team a few years ago.”

Surprisingly, despite the early struggle, Pradeep gave up a secure cashier’s job with the State Bank of Travancore and joined Mumbai’s Mahindra United two years ago.

“Jo Paul (Ancheri) bhai and I. M. Vijayan bhai advised me to leave Kerala and try some big clubs outside. They said I had a very bright future,” said the new ebony-hued hero, who was Kerala’s Footballer of the Year two years ago.

The move to Mahindra United, a top team in the National League, put Pradeep frequently in the spotlight. He led the India under-23 team and soon became a very dependable member of the senior national team.

Now, after his scorcher against Syria in the Nehru Cup final, Pradeep has become a popular figure.

“Everything has changed and we have almost everything at home. Only appa is not there,” said Pradeep, who became a bit emotional. His dad passed away just a few days before the Nehru Cup camp began.

With nice exposure trips, the Indian team had prepared smartly for the Nehru Cup. “Coach Bob Houghton made us believe in ourselves. Now, we can do better and move on to bigger things,” said Pradeep.

“Football is going up in a big way in the country, the live matches, the big crowds, big companies starting clubs, the new professional league . I’m sure it’s only going to be up, up all the way from here.”

Pradeep took to football at the Idukki’s Moolamattom Government High School when he was in the sixth standard. A few years later, he found his way into Thodupuzha’s Unity Soccer Club. He caught the eye of coach K. Bharathan at the under-22 Kerala camp and, on his recommendation, was taken in the SBT team.

A versatile player, Pradeep offers many options and is often the key man in set-piece situations. He was an attacking midfielder in the Nehru Cup but for nearly a couple of years before that he was hailed as a solid defender. He also had the reputation of rattling goalkeepers with his booming long rangers.

“But I began my international career as a striker,” said the Mumbai United star. “That was in the Asian Junior qualifiers when I was 19.”

Defenders often lead quiet lives, feels Pradeep. “The midfielder’s role suits me fine. You get a chance to score goals too.”

Well, who can forget his Nehru Cup treat.