The Singapore Premier League (SPL), and its predecessor the S.league, has seen many great defenders grace the competition. Aide Iskandar, Baihakki Khaizan, Daniel Bennett, S. Subramani are just some of the hallmark names that come to mind. Yet, there are many unsung heroes that have played in the league as well. Often, these underrated players go under the radar. When I think of underrated Singaporean defenders, there are none more prominent than Delwinder Singh. The lanky defender has played for many local clubs and now finds himself back at Tanjong Pagar United FC (TPUFC), the club where he began his professional career.
I reached out to Delwinder recently to interview him, and to my surprise, he was more than happy to accommodate my wishes. I had the privilege of conducting a virtual face-to-face interview with him the past weekend, and I have to say that not only is he an underrated footballer but also possibly one of the nicest lads you will ever meet. This is his footballing story or rather, some parts of it.
Beginnings into Football
Delwinder Singh’s football journey really took off during his time playing for the Sengkang Secondary School’s football team. His fine performances for his school team earned him a spot at the North Zone’s Center of Excellence, where he was captain of the team. When he was 14 years old, he attended a trial set up by the Singapore Sports School to pick out players for the annual AFC Carnival, a continental Asian club. The Singapore Sports School had 14 players but a squad of 18 was required for registration. So 4 players were taken from mainstream secondary schools, one from each position – a goalkeeper, a defender, a midfielder, and a forward.
Del was invited for the trial by Abdullah Noor, the Sports School coach, after Del impressed him while playing for North Zone in a match against the Sports School. However, Del didn’t make the cut and it was this rejection that spurred him on to further improve his ability as a player.
“It was my first-ever call-up to the national youth set up and I was really nervous, so I didn’t make it. I was really upset about it, but I told myself that I will continue working hard. [Noor] had already seen me once and it’s possible that they would see me again.”
Sure enough, after some time, during a friendly between North Zone and Sports School, Del caught the eye of Noor once again. This time, according to Del, Noor was blown away by the defender’s performances.
He came up to the young defender and said, “I really don’t know what’s with you, but you came for trials you were different, and now you play [differently]. This is the Del I wanted. Come and train with us again.”
Delwinder managed to impress during his trial the second time around and eventually did go on to represent Singapore in the AFC Carnival. This was Del’s first time representing Singapore on a youth level, but it sure wasn’t going to be his last. He went on to represent Singapore at the Under-15 through the Under-18 levels.
Two times lucky with the Jaguars
What many people do not realize is how the defender came close to quitting football altogether on both instances before signing up with the Jaguars. In 2010, Delwinder was sidelined for 9 months after breaking his metatarsal while playing handball during a PE lesson at Sengkang Secondary School. The lengthy time out in many ways was “a blessing in disguise” for it allowed the player some much needed time to focus on studying for his GCE ‘O” Levels. 2010 was Del’s 6th year in secondary school. After not scoring as well as he expected results for his ‘O’ Levels the previous year, his father and his secondary school teacher advised him to resit the examinations. Even though he scored much better in his second attempt, Del was out of the NFA-18 set up entirely. While his former teammates were signing up with the Young Lions and other Centers of Excellence, Del thought he was out of the radar of clubs and decided that he should focus on excelling in his Sports Science diploma at Republic Polytechnic.
Out of nowhere, as luck would have it, Del was approached by Terry Pathmanathan, the newly appointed Jaguars head coach in early 2011. Tanjong Pagar United had rejoined the league for the 2011 season and they were in need of players to fill out their squad. They had conducted trials to recruit players, but Del was still recuperating from his metatarsal injury. Despite being unable to attend the trials, Pathmanathan, or “Coach Terry” as Delwinder endearingly refers to him, rang him up and told him that the club was interested in signing him. On the brink of ending his footballing ambitions, Terry handed Del what many local aspiring footballers would call a golden opportunity – the chance to play professionally. Pathmanathan had worked with the NFA set up and knew what Del was capable of. Despite the fact that Del was only recently cleared from his injuries, he vouched for Del’s ability based and signed him up.
While many of his peers were playing for Prime League and the under-23 and under-21 national team, his stellar performances during the 2011 season earned him his first national team call-up later that year. Del would be the first to declare how grateful he is to both Coach Terry and the Jaguars for providing him with his big break, especially when he was about to call quits on a footballing career.
Before the start of the 2020 Singapore Premier League season, drama unfolded when Warriors FC, the most successful club in league’s history, were forced to sit out of the upcoming campaign. The club had been plagued by financial issues since 2018 where it began to default the payment of wages to players. The issue only intensified in 2019, and the club found itself debt-ridden.
“Everybody has said their piece but for me, end of the day, it was a lesson. I never ever thought such a situation would happen in Singapore, a country with stringent measures in place to ensure that unpaid wages would never be an issue. It dragged on for a couple of months, for which it differed for each player. Some were owed two [month’s salary]. Some were owed three [month’s salary]. And the most was six [month’s salary].
“A lot of players had issues coming out [and talking about the issue] not because they didn’t want to. People kept on asking why I continued to play despite being unpaid. I don’t think people understood it was not easy to come out and discuss these things because it could get you implicated. By coming out, would it makes things worse?”
Still, even though wages were given late, Del did mention that the Warriors did eventually pay their players. They came up with a plan for players who were still owed salaries and adhered to the plan where players were payed promptly.
Despite letting go many of their personnel at the end of last season, the 9-time league champions were determined to carry out the current campaign. A bare-boned squad of 16 players was assembled and continued training in January despite the uncertainty of whether the club was going to continue or not. Then, the seemingly inevitable happened. The Football Association of Singapore pulled the plug on the Warriors’s participation and requested they sit out the current campaign. By that point, many other teams had almost finalized their squads. Del would be the first to tell you that it was a complete shock that something like this happened to such a decorated club, like Warriors, in Singapore.
The incident with Warriors left limited options for the defender and Delwinder believed once again that perhaps it was time to hang up his boots for good. Had he done so, it would be a shame but also unsurprising. Many other promising Singaporean players (including internationals) have retired early in the game. Their decision is certainly influenced by the lack of opportunity to play. Even though the SPL is the only professional sports league in Singapore, the number of local clubs has fallen from 12 in 2002 to 6 in 2020. The issue of opportunity is exacerbated by the greater emphasis on youth in recent years. For some time now, at least 6 spots in the squad must be assigned to players under the age of 23. Competition for places in teams is rife and with each squad typically having 3 goalkeepers, 9 slots out of 25 are already occupied in most team sheets. Graduating this August with a degree in Business Management from RMIT, Del was set on focusing his time and energy on his education.
However, in what seems like a page out of fairy tale, out of nowhere he was handed a lifeline to continue playing from none other than the club where it all began. For the second time, Delwinder became a TPUFC player. It was an emotional return for him as well. When he left the team in 2012, he promised himself that he would return back to the club before retiring, but that ambition was crushed when the Jaguars decided to pull out of the league after the end of 2014 season. Their return couldn’t be timelier because Del gets to fulfil this earlier promise and more importantly, extend his footballing career.
Coping with the Coronavirus
The 2020 SPL season barely commenced before the intensification of the coronavirus in Singapore which led to the suspension of the league. Delwinder had started all three games and despite finding themselves 7th in the league, the Jaguars have done reasonably well (especially given the short amount of time they had to assemble their squad together). The defender is thrilled that his footballing dream is kept alive and he puts in his best to give back to the Jaguars. He mentioned how he is grateful to the TUPFC management, chairman, and coaching staff for their faith in him and their desire to have him on board.
Besides attending his RMIT classes online and submitting his assignments, Del spends his days by keeping fit. Like many SPL clubs, the Jaguars requires their players to maintain their fitness.
“As of now, the club sends us a weekly workout which we do about three to four times a week and plus you have to send in your running timings where you have to clock in 8 to 10 Km per week,” reveals Del when quizzed about what the Jaguars have outlined for him. “They’re not so anal about what apps we use so long as we screenshot it and send it to them.”
But running miles is not the same as building match fitness and Del revealed how it would take some time for players to be up to speed when the league eventually resumes (hopefully).
“For me, [when it comes to] this kind of running, it’s totally different to [playing the full 90 minutes]. You can be running 5 Kilometres below 20 minutes, but when you go to a game, you cannot last. It’s two different ball games.”
The Korean League opener between Suwon Bluewings and Jeonbuk Motors characterized the lack of match fitness, and Del mentions how when football resumes, opening fixtures “won’t be of the same intensity and it gradually takes you 2 to 3 games for you to get into the rhythm again.”
Del was personally vested in the match because former Home United manager, Lee Lim-saeng, now took charge of the Bluewings. While Del was playing at Warriors, Lee was supposed to be appointed as head coach and actually trained with the club for a week.
“Within that week or two, you could see what he wanted from his players but [knowing] what he wanted from his players and based on yesterday’s game, I think it’s totally different. So I think, yeah, it will take a bit of time before players get into the rhythm again.”
The Future: National Team, Moving Abroad, and Retirement Plans
Delwinder has represented the national team a total of 5 times thus far and is determined to add more to that tally before he eventually retires. While playing for the national team consistently is his eventual goal, his main priority is to play well for his club and ensure that his team achieves their goals. He doesn’t go into matches with the mindset that he needs to look good so that he can earn a national team call up. That being said, he is raring to get another call-up, his last one coming in 2013.
More Singaporean footballers are trying their luck abroad with Malaysia and Thailand becoming popular destinations and if an opportunity overseas beckons, Del is not going to let it slip. Prior to this, a move abroad was off the cards given his educational and national service commitments. Between 2011 and 2014, Del was juggling between playing and studying at Republic Poly. He then enlisted for National Service and decided to pursue a degree in 2018 at RMIT. Since he doesn’t have any intention of pursuing further studies, he is finally free to pursue a move abroad once he graduates this August.
A move to Malaysia or Thailand would seem likely but who knows, we might find him in other leagues. The K-league recently added an extra foreign player slot for ASEAN players. A move to the I-League is also another plausibility, and Del could be following the footsteps of former teammate and close friend Jozef Kapláň, who signed for Chennai City FC in 2017. Del believes a move abroad would push his game to the next level because as an import player, he would be expected to be better than local players. Del mentioned how Stipe Plazibat, another close friend, is a model example of how a foreign player should be – someone with immense quality who value adds the rest of the team. He also cites players like Safuwan Baharudin and Harris Harun as prime examples of players who have raised their game even further after a move abroad.
I’ve always held the belief that more Singaporean footballers should actively seek moves abroad to help improve their game, which therefore increases the quality of Singaporean players. It is heartening to know that players like Del are open to such a possibility – even if it means participating in trials for a few weeks. At the same time, given the current pandemic, it would be sometime before a move abroad may actually be a possibility (let alone materialize).
Despite being a ten year veteran in the league, Del is still relatively young at 28 years old. If he remains fit and avoids any long-term injuries, he still has many years of playing ahead. Yet, I couldn’t resist asking about his plans after he eventually hangs up his boots. Surprisingly, while he would not be opposed to coaching youth teams part-time, he doesn’t see himself being involved in full-time coaching (at least for the time being). Instead, he wishes to go into any sort of management. While I was initially taken aback, I guess it makes sense. Del has worn the armband for his club on a number of occasions and possesses leadership traits that would translate naturally into a management role in the corporate or public sector.
Whatever the future may hold, Del can hold his head up high for his performances thus far in his career. Approaching the prime years of a defender, I daresay that his best form is yet to come. The future looks bright for the defender, and if he puts in consistent performances once the league resumes, it is only a matter of time before we see him don the national team jersey once again.