Asian Football Interviews

Meet Gavin Lee, Singapore’s Brightest Coaching Prospect – Part 1: The Journey to Topflight Football

Even though Singapore has a professional football league with seven local professional clubs, the pool of players is small. There are many reasons for this, and one of them is the fact that most parents discourage their children from pursuing a professional career in sports. While many parents may be supportive of their children taking up sports as a serious hobby or ad hoc activity, they would rather their kids spend their time focusing on their academics. Getting a bachelor’s degree is usually seen as of paramount importance. However, to juggle one’s undergraduate studies and their sporting development is a monumental task. Hence, many often give up football altogether when they decide to pursue higher education in their late teens and early 20s.

Of course, as with everything, there are exceptions. One such exception has to be Anders Aplin, who I interviewed sometime in May. The current Hougang United defender played for Geylang International during his last year in Nanyang Technological University and labelled how challenging that year was. One other person who knows this struggle of balancing academics and sports all too well is Gavin Lee, the current head coach of Tampines Rovers. The 28-year-old studied in NTU while coaching at JSSL full-time.

However, Gavin isn’t just a role model because he managed to fulfil “societal expectations” of obtaining a degree and at the same time pursuing a career in sports. He is a role model because, through his sheer hard work and resilience, he has overcome many barriers and went on to become the head coach of his boyhood club, Tampines Rovers, at the tender age of 28. However, don’t let his age fool you. In his debut season last year, Gavin managed to guide the Stags to a second-place finish in the Singapore Premier League (SPL). A truly impressive start for any coach.

I managed to interview Gavin sometime last month, and it was an enjoyable interaction. It was really easy to talk to Gavin. So easy that the interview often digressed to other footballing topics, and then it became a heart-warming conversation where we discussed everything under the sun. I won’t lie. I had a lot of fun in this interview, and it’s possibly top of the list for now.

In Part 1 of this interview, I take a look at Gavin’s journey before becoming Tampines Rovers head coach in 2019.

Beginnings in Football

Like many footballers, Gavin started off wanting to become a footballer from a young age. He grew up in Tampines and naturally fell in love with Tampines Rovers. Gavin studied at Tampines Primary, where a number of his then school mates make up the current national team. One schoolmate included Safirul Sulaiman, who Gavin now coaches at Tampines. He also played for the Tampines Rovers under-10 and then under-12 teams before moving onto the NFA set up. At NFA, he was coached by former Singapore stalwart Kadir Yahaya. At NFA, Gavin played in the same team as Harris Harun, Izwan Mahbud, Hafiz Sujad, and Gabriel Quak. While these players went on to forge successful professional careers as footballers, Gavin believed that his calling in football was to become a head coach instead.

“If I was going to do something, I wanted to be the best at it. I think I was an above-average player in terms of abilities but I knew I was never going to be as good as some of these players. At a younger age, I have already gotten exposure to coaching. My dad was, well still is, a coach and I remember I used to follow him around and help him out with coaching younger kids during my teenage years.

Photo Credits: Gavin Lee

“Subconsciously, I think that rubbed off on me because I’ve always seen my dad as a role model. [My dad] showed me his passion for coaching and Kadir Yahaya came along and showed me what coaching was. So, when I got a little more serious about coaching, I think things just picked off from there.

“I find a lot of you when I’m coaching other people. When you’re playing the game, you are more focused on your own contributions to the team so it can succeed. As a coach, you’re dealing with 25 other human beings and pulling them together in the same direction is not easy. I mean, it is never easy.”

Coping with Academics and Coaching

After finishing his Primary School Leaving Examinations, Gavin went to Pasir Ris Secondary School, where he met Yasir Hanapi, who was one year his senior. However, he would only spend a year there before transferring over to Victoria School in secondary 2, where he played for the school team. When he was secondary 4, Gavin decided that he was going to apply for Victoria Junior College through the Direct School Admission Exercise, citing that he was “never academically bright enough to get in.” After his A levels, like every Singaporean son, Gavin entered national service, and his coaching career reached a standstill. Gavin was never the most enthusiastic serviceman, but he got his job done and after his ORD went to work part-time as a coach with JSSL. However, while his parents supported his aspirations of becoming a football coach, they still (like most Singaporean parents) expect their children to obtain at least a bachelors degree.

“You know, I come from a Singapore family, you need to get the paper [qualifications]. Me trying to be the filial son, I had to try to get that degree. My parents, coming from that generation, always emphasized getting that degree because they didn’t necessarily have that opportunity. So, I had to kill two birds with one stone (getting a degree and progressing as a coach). I didn’t want to do a business degree or any random degree. I looked at my options and asked myself what can help me, so I saw sports science and I knew this could help me.”

Gavin pursued his degree in Sports Science at Nanyang Technological University for 4 years, which Gavin found especially beneficial. Besides refining his logical thinking, his time at University improved his critical analysis, ability to source for new information, and, most importantly, how to conduct research. By his second year at NTU, Gavin was working full time at JSSL. However, work commitments meant that he had little time and opportunity to socialize with his Sports Science cohorts nor participate in any hall activities.

Juggling academics and football is never an easy task, and I wanted to dive deeper into the topic and ask how Gavin managed his time. Gavin concedes that he struggled to balance school and football initially when he was younger during his time in secondary school. He left the NFA when he was in Secondary 4 because he believed that he couldn’t cope with the demands of training and adequately prepare for his GCE ‘O’ Level Examinations. Since he came from a reputable school, there was also a lot of expectations for Gavin to do well.

“When I was secondary 3 at Victoria School, I was in one of the better classes. I was in class 3D and I remember one of the HODs came in and said the school is expecting thirty 6-pointers from my class. I looked around and told myself, well I’m not going to be one of them. I had 6 to 7 scholars in my class. In hindsight, it was a good thing because it challenged me to focus on my academics. Maybe that’s why I thought I couldn’t manage both that and football (at the time).”

First Foray into coaching in the professional scene

In 2014, while balancing his work with JSSL and his academic responsibilities with NTU, Gavin was handed a fantastic opportunity to enter professional coaching by Alex Weaver. JSSL’s founder and managing director Harvey Davis allowed Gavin to take some time off so that he could work alongside Weaver at Warriors FC (my favourite club). The additional commitment of working with Warriors meant that his already long days became even longer, but despite that, Gavin learned a ton under Weaver’s guidance.

Photo Credits: Gavin Lee

“Alex opened the door and showed me a whole new world into coaching. I think that was important because, at the time, I knew there was more when it came to coaching but I didn’t know how to get there. So Alex came in and gave me a signpost saying ‘go here.’ Things just grew from there.”

Gavin spent close to 2 seasons with Warriors, and during his stint with the club, Weaver wanted Gavin to come on board in a more official capacity. However, the Warriors management did not see the value in Gavin then and did not want to hire an unproven manager. It would be more apt to call his time at Warriors an invaluable stint. The club did not pay Gavin, but the absence of a salary did not matter to him. He knew it would be incredibly difficult for him to get such an incredible experience again. Weaver did “pay” the player with drinks from Starbucks and food from Pastamania. These small gestures by Weaver meant a lot to Gavin, and their bond strengthened as they continued to work together at Warriors.

Gavin is still in contact with the former Warriors head coach, and they are still very close today. Weaver is now a football periodization coach at FC Basel’s Academy, yet the pair still make it a point to FaceTime every week. Gavin has visited Weaver several times in Switzerland and has stayed over at his family’s house. He has also stayed over with Weaver’s parents in Stoke, and Gavin is forever grateful for what the Weavers (Alex and his family) have done for and continue to do for him.

At JSSL, Gavin coached the son of the Tampines Rovers’ chairman Desmond Ong and became acquainted with him through that. Interestingly, Gavin’s father coached the son before Gavin coached him. Back then, Desmond was just a lawyer at Raffles Place. However, he approached Gavin to coach the Tampines Rovers Under-19 team and become assistant to then-head coach Jürgen Raab. Fortunately, he reached an agreement where he could work for both JSSL and Tampines Rovers. By doing so, he had the best of both worlds. How so? Well, Gavin had a step into professional football with Tampines Rovers while he remained coaching some of the best youth players in Singapore with JSSL.

Harvey Davis has been an important figure in Gavin’s career. The JSSL managing director has always recognized that it has been Gavin’s dream to become a head coach one day and has always fully supported his career. However, Gavin did not want to leave JSSL entirely. Yes, the academy needed someone else to help fill some of his responsibilities, but Gavin had invested so much of his time in JSSL that he could not simply walk away from it altogether.

Photo credits: Gavin Lee

“I had put in so much blood sweat and tears into JSSL with Harvey and we’ve developed it into a proper organization. The last thing you want to do is to leave the place in a worst state than when you [first] came on board. But, Harvey was extremely supportive for me to go across [into professional coaching full time] and I guess I never looked back when the opportunity came.”

One big factor that influenced Gavin’s decision to take up the Tampines job was the Stags’ chairman. As ambitious as Gavin is, he needs to partake in something sustainable. He did not want the appointment to be a gimmick – a one-season wonder kind of deal. Thankfully, the board knew Gavin well and were sold by his philosophy and process. While that may be, it also meant that Gavin needed to deliver results on the pitch and show the board that they were right in placing their trust in him.

In part 2, I look into the next chapter of Gavin’s career, his first full season as head coach of Tampines Rovers and see what plans he has in the future.

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