Skipper S Ignatius gave an apt birthday present to the people of Kerala, scoring the winner in extra time as his side beat fancied Punjab 3-2 in the Santosh Trophy football tournament final in New Delhi on Sunday.
The Kerala state was formed on November 1, 1956 and it was a timely gift to the passionate supporters, who filled the Ambedkar Stadium to near its capacity, when Ignatius scored the winner in the 107th minute.
The two teams were locked 2-2 at the end of regulation time in an absorbing contest that almost went to the wire.
Kerala could have won their fifth title in regulation time itself but Punjab goalkeeper Kameshwar Singh made amends for his earlier lapses blocking Lenal Thomas' spot kick in the 90th minute and the stunned Kerala players failed to tap in the rebound.
But Kameshwar has to take blame for Kerala's first two goals. The first one, which gave Kerala 1-0 lead at the break, came as the result of the BSF man's blunder as he lost balance while gathering a probing floater from the right by Bijesh Ben and crossed the goalline.
Referee Rizwan-ul-Haq immediately awarded the goal to Kerala after consulting the linesman and the vociferous protests by the Punjab players had no effect.
Changing ends, Punjab attacked with more vigour and scored twice in the first six minutes.
Punjab's equaliser was scored by hardworking Hardeep Gill who was allowed to operate freely by the Kerala defenders. The wily player dodged past two rival defenders and beat goalkeeper M V Nelson with a powerful rightfooter in the 48th minute.
The very next moment Kerala wasted a golden chance to wrest back the lead when K M Abdul Naushad ballooned his shot from close with just the goalkeeper to beat.
The southern state, making its fourth consecutive entry into the final and 12th overall, immediately went 1-2 down when defender Harpreet Singh jumped over his marker to head in Punjab's first corner kick after the break.
The entire team then ran to the corner flag to join the celebrations with their supporters as the Kerala fans quietly watched their team's fortune turn upside down.
The second goal in quick time gave Punjab more confidence as Kerala defence wilted under more onslaughts.
But Kerala restored parity four minutes later courtesy another costly mistake by the Punjab custodian, who had emerged hero only the other day, when they beat defending champions Manipur via the tie-breaker.
Thistime it was Noushad who fooled the goalkeeper when he curved in a corner kick to the far post with Kameshwar most probably expecting a floater into the danger area.
Thegoal again brought the Kerala fans, who thronged the stadium with drums, crackers and banners, back on their feet. Small groups of fans even took turns to move around the stadium singing and dancing to the tune of popular songs.
With clock ticking away towards the 90-minutemark, the Kerala fans were sure of their team's win when a forceful move by substitute Naushad Pari and striker Abdul Hakeem saw Punjab defender Harpreet Singh bringing down Hakeem inside the box. The referee immediately pointed to the spot.
Thomascame up with a powerful shot but lacked direction and it was easily blocked by Kameshwar diving to his right. The Kerala players who were prowling for the rebound failed to tap in as the Punjab defence avoided the danger and launched a quick counter.
Theaction quickly changed ends before Harvinder Singh narrowly missed the mark seconds before the final whistle. That was one of the number of chances, Punjab forwards messed up on the final day as skipper Gurjit Singh Atwal, Punjab's top scorer and Harvinder failed miserably with their finishing today.
Theextra time again saw the two teams battle hard for the winner till Ignatius came up with his stunner two minutes into the second half of extra time.
The move began from Kerala's Fransa Goa player Pari who foundIgnatius on the edge of the box. The skipper tried to test Kameshwar, who looked vulnerable against aerial balls and succeeded with his sharp left footer that sailed into the far corner of the net.
Kerala then smothered Punjab's pressure for the next 13minutes and clinched the prestigious trophy to huge cheers from the fans who were already in celebration mode as Punjab's attacks came to a halt one by one.
Crackers then lit up the evening sky as the Kerala supporters celebrated their team's triumph which last came in Mumbai in 2000-01 when they beat Goa 3-2on golden goal.
In the last Imphal edition, in 2002, Kerala lost the crown to Manipur under controversial circumstances
Today's win made the Kerala team richer by Rs 3 lakh while the Punjab team got Rs 1.5 lakh for finishing runners-up. Kerala skipper Ignatius was named the Indian Oil man of the match and won Rs 10,000.