The enforcer has turned head with his performances for the Marina Machans this season and now finds himself on the fringes of the national camp.

“I sent a text to him this morning about half-past nine,” said John Gregory, contently, after Chennaiyin’s 3-0 victory over bogey team NorthEast United. “He was still asleep on his bed, and I sent him, ‘I want to see you in the breakfast room in 15 minutes.’ He came in to see me, and he was absolutely petrified that I was going to punish him for something.”

Given his soft-spoken mien, it’s easy to picturise a petrified-looking Dhanapal Ganesh, especially since his time at Chennaiyin had been far from exceptional before the nascent season. “He came with the look on his face like he was expecting me to tell him off about something,” continued the gaffer. “I was, in fact, giving him some good news that he was probably going to play tonight, so his face changed immediately when he realized it was only good news and not bad news.”

Chennai had lost their opening game to FC Goa despite their second-half heroics, and they headed into the NorthEast clash on November 23, desperate for a positive result. Within 25 minutes, they struck twice before going on to secure their first win of the season, a comfortable 3-0 victory. Although talisman Raphael Augusto and Mohamed Rafi made the score-sheet, thereby grabbing the limelight, the Chennai-born youngster arguably had a better evening than most others that day.

Starting his first-ever ISL game, he bossed the midfield, together with Bikramjit Singh. Commenting on his performance, the manager said, “He played fantastically well. He was in the middle of everything. I don’t think he’d ever played in a game of such high intensity, but he and Bikramjit [Singh] had an outstanding game. For us to have two young boys – I consider both him and Bikramjit [Singh] young – in the centre of the midfield who’re outstanding [is encouraging].”

Setting out to prove that his near-impeccable display was no flash in the pan, he’s not only kept up his level of performance, for he’s also been a crucial cog in the table-topping Chennaiyin side. Excellent at reading the game and linking defence and attack, he essentially gives Jeje Lalpekhlua and co. the license to roam, as he sits back, in front of a top-class back four. In fact, he’s so detrimental to Chennaiyin that it baffles the onlookers why their former coach Marco Materazzi never started him in his two years at the Marina Arena outfit.

Never the one to draw undue attention to himself, he elected not to discuss his relationship with the ISL-winning coach in an interview with Sportstar, although one could figure out the non-existence of a relationship between them. The arrival of the former Aston Villa man seems to have come at the right time for him for, under the coach who’s excelled at bringing the best out of his players wherever he’s coached, he now receives the opportunity he’s always desired and rightfully deserved.

Dhanpal Ganesh scored the late winner against Bengaluru FC on 17th December 2017

If his subtle yet massive contribution wasn’t evident already, he announced himself when scoring a fairy-tale last-gasp winner against Bengaluru at Sree Kanteerava Stadium in the first-ever derby between Chennaiyin and the Blues. The observers of Indian football finally took notice of his talent and, by the looks of things, he’s not only made Chennai’s defensive midfield spot his own, for he’s also seemingly cemented his place in Stephen Constantine’s squad.

However, his utility isn’t limited to his excellence on the pitch, for he represents what Chennaiyin should strive to be: local, hard-working and stellar. In fact, the ever such a loud ‘He’s one of our own!’ chant and the fact he receives cheers that rivalled by none in the club ought to tell Abishek Bachchan and Vita Dani how they’ve failed to capitalize on his star power in the city of over 10 million residents.

Although he keeps to himself on most occasions, he seems to shed his shyness when interacting with fans. As a matter of fact, he goes out of his way to mingle with Super Machans and B-Stand Blues – the club’s two most prominent fan groups – and his celebrating with the travelling fans after scoring Chennai’s first-ever goal by a Tamil Nadu player at Bengaluru on the way to the team bus and ditching the team bus to join Super Machans’ bike rally upon Chennai’s arrival from their Thailand tour underscores the emotional bond between the fans and the player.

Dhanpal Ganesh – Their own Chennai player

“First thing is they’re my friends,” the Chennai-born midfielder told Khel Now, reflecting upon his relationship with the fans. “That’s the reason why they’re closer to me [than any other player is to any set of fans here]. Yes, I love my friends more. Really, they’re my biggest support, and I’m blessed to have them. Whenever I feel down, they boost me up.”

The fans view him as a beacon of hope after seeing no player from the state play for the national team or a top club before his rise to prominence. “[His presence] increases the home connect of the club and also instils hope that good talents from the state and from the city will find a place in the club in the future,” said Jenisha Rani, an ardent Chennaiyin supporter. “With our youth teams also doing exceedingly well, we are hopeful that there will be more Dhanpal Ganesh’s at Chennaiyin five years down the line.”


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Raghul Anthony, another Super Machan, remarked, “He’s a hero to the young Chennai players who are working hard to make their debuts in professional football. The questions about the quality of our state’s football will fade away. His presence will make a huge impact both at Chennaiyin and on the development of Tamil Nadu footballers.”

Although he returned to the national team set-up essentially on the back of his superb run with Chennai City, it’s safe to say that Chennaiyin will be his long-term home, considering his talent, marketability and the dearth of ISL-quality players in the state. On being the only local player in the team, he said, “It feels really great and so proud to be. I have been waiting for three years to be in the position where I’m now. After my injury and years of struggle, I finally got a chance to prove myself this season. I hope I’m using the chance in a proper way. I’m so happy being in Chennaiyin.”

To think Chennai waited until the 12th round in ISL Players Draft 2017-18 to bring him back to the club.