Asian Football Interviews

Meet Gavin Lee, Singapore’s Brightest Coaching Prospect – Part 2: Takeaways thus far as Head Coach

In Part 1, I looked at Gavin’s journey to coaching in top flight football. In Part 2, I look at Gavin’s first full year as Tampines Rovers head coach and some of the things he has learned and experienced.

Takeaways from His First Year

There was a lot of buzz when Gavin got appointed as the Tampines Rovers head coach in 2019. People who knew Gavin were very excited and supportive about the decision. Here, there was an up and coming young football coach who had his own ideas. However, there were also people, who didn’t know Gavin, that were skeptical about the move. They wondered whether Gavin could manage a team that had several players who were older than him.

Even though Tampines failed to win the league in 2019, it’s safe to say that the club has progressed a lot under Gavin’s stewardship. In 2018, Gavin had been assistant coach to Jürgen Raab. Under the former East German international, the club finished 4th in the league, finished bottom of their AFC Cup group and were knocked out by Home United in the quarter-finals of the Singapore Cup.

By contrast, as I mentioned earlier in the article, Gavin steered the Stags to a second-place finish in the SPL, won the Singapore Cup and came second in their AFC Cup group, narrowly missing out on qualification from the Group Stages in the AFC Cup by goal difference. Gavin has a plan for the Stags and it has been working thus far.

One thing that Gavin realized quite quickly as Tampines Rovers’ head coach is that even though he was working with adults, grown men, his players were still boys at heart.

“All they want to do is enjoy training; enjoy football just like the JSSL players I worked with. People often forget that even though they are adults, they want to enjoy football. My message to the team from day 1 has been that I want [my players] to be looking forward to training. I do not want my players to be dragging their feet to training and seeing it as work. We are all so privileged to be working in football and being paid to do what we love. If we do not enjoy what we do, it is going to be a problem. I know sitting on the bench is not going to be enjoyable. I understand that, but at the very least, when it comes to training, players need to enjoy being on the pitch.”

Gavin also gave me insights on how the recruitment process happens behind the scenes. Being the head coach, he will highlight certain areas that need reinforcement and, together with his technical team (Desmond Ong, Mustafic Fahrudin and William Phang) source for players. Of course, to play for a club like Tampines, a player is expected to be of a certain caliber. However, for Gavin, he pays particular attention to the character of the player, which he believes is “as important if not more important than the technical ability of a player.”

Photo Credits: Tampines Rovers FC

That being said, Gavin counts himself lucky to be working with a host of national team players before turning thirty years old. Daniel Bennet, Madhu Mohana, Irwan Shah, Yasir Hanapi, Baihaiki Khaizan, Khairul Amri, Hassan Sunny and Ammirul Adli are just some of the names that he has worked with.

However, he conceded that planning ahead can be a challenge in the Singapore Premier League, and that is because of the league’s unpredictability. I agree with him. No one saw it coming when the FAS asked Warriors FC, the 7-time S.League champions and most successful team in Singaporean football, to sit out of the current 2020 campaign due to the club’s financial issues. One problem that Gavin has navigated around is the issue of transfers, where the Tampines head coach has promoted a number of players from the club’s Prime League squad.

“We do want to think ahead and as much as we can see ahead, we will plan for it. However, when it comes to the unpredictability of Singapore football, it is tough. [At the same time,] I think we have shown that we are serious about bringing young players in like [Ammirul] Adli, Irfan Najeeb, Shah Shahiran, and Joel Chew. If they are good enough, they are old enough.”

“At the same time, I’ve been saying this to reporters a lot since Baihakki joined us, if you’re good enough, you’re young enough as well. I think once they introduced the under-23 rule, it forced a number of senior players out of the door. If you’re good enough, you’re old enough. If you’re good enough, you’re young enough. It works both ways. You can’t be telling me that someone like Bai, who is good enough for Thai League 1, is too old for Singapore football. I do not buy that. If Daniel Bennet is good enough to play in the SPL, it is not Daniel Bennet’s fault [that he is 42 years old.]”

The importance of management and bringing in a culture to the club is another takeaway for Gavin.

“I hate this term, control. In football in general, you hear this term a lot; controlling players; managing players. I don’t see it that way. I see it as working together with players. It stems back to JSSL where I was given an opportunity to be the director of coaching and general manager quite young. [I was] Working with people older than me so I had to learn how to work with them. You can’t force things on people, you can only convince or influence them. Those skills were useful coming to Tampines.”

Thankfully, Gavin reveals that the older players knew what he was trying to accomplish at the club and threw their weight behind him. After Gavin managed to win over the core group of Tampines players, the rest of the squad followed suit.

Photo Credits: Tampines Rovers FC

“People think I have the most problems with the senior players; that they are the ones who will give me the most problems. They are the players who I have least problems with. To be honest, I have no problems with the senior players. They are the most professional because they get what I’m doing and they’ve got to where they are today because of their professionalism. It’s the younger players that need an education because they can be naive at times, but who better to guide them than the senior players.”

One message that Gavin and the Tampines team tell their young players is to use Tampines as a platform to go abroad. Honestly speaking, a player would probably reach a plateau and stagnate if he plays in Singapore for an extended period of time. It is important for players to move abroad so that they take their game to the next level. Gavin can tell this to his players easily because that is the same message sent to him by the Chairman. However, that doesn’t mean that Gavin has any concrete plans for the future just yet. Although, Gavin does have ambitions, and one of them is to coach a club in the Champions League, something that he has made public about.

“As a coach, the highest possible level is probably the Champions League and I really want to compete in the Champions League. What form that takes, I don’t know. I am not Pep Guardiola or Carlo Ancelotti where I can have my pick of clubs. I am not there yet. It’s why I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the future because I want to be focusing on the present. I need to get now sorted, if I don’t do that I won’t have a future. Well, I would have a future but it is a poorer one. It is something I tell my players, to focus on the now.”

Gavin has also gotten a clearer understanding of how Singapore football works. The various processes, the strengths and weaknesses of the current system in place, as well as the financing are just some of the things that Gavin has come to grips with after his first full year as Tampines Rovers head coach. As a result, he believes that people who criticize local football really don’t understand what goes on behind the scenes, which is true. Many of us (myself included) can lament about the state of Singaporean football, but without an understanding what issues linger in the local footballing framework, we are not really helping by complaining, are we?

Relishing AFC Football

While the Singapore Premier League is the main focus for the club, Gavin won’t hide the fact that he thoroughly enjoys the AFC Cup, primarily because of the higher level of competition. Take last year for example, the Stags were grouped together with Hanoi FC (champions of Vietnam), Yangon United (champions of Myanmar), and Nagaworld (champions of Cambodia). That campaign was a memorable one for Gavin, whose side came in second and only failed to progress due to goal difference.

“Last year we won 4 games, drew 1 and lost 1. We lost the game to Hanoi and I think people forget how good Hanoi are. Hanoi are potentially one of the best teams in Southeast Asia. So, they’re on the level of JDT. They have such a good team and the football they play is very good as well. I told the team last season that there would be one or two games where we’d concede a little more possession than we’d like and that’s against Hanoi.”

Gavin wasn’t wrong. The Stags won all their other matches but drew their first match against Hanoi at home, 1-1, and lost 2-0 away. Losing out on goal difference was probably rough, but Gavin and his team could hold their heads up high.

People probably think that the 4-3 thriller during the Singapore Cup Final was the most memorable for the Tampines head coach, but it was the Stags’ first AFC Cup match against Yangon that stood out for Gavin. I guess it comes as no surprise since it was Gavin’s first competitive fixture with the club (the AFC Cup/Champions League starts before the commencement of the SPL). What a start it was, though. Tampines cruised past Yangon 3-1 in what I’d call a dream start for any debuting coach.

The Stags have started strong this term in the AFC Cup as well and are still unbeaten in the group stages. The tournament will resume in October and hopefully, Tampines can go far this time round.

Coping with Covid-19

The global pandemic has brought football to a halt in Singapore. There are serious doubts as to whether the Singapore Premier League will continue. As things stand, training sessions have resumed but are limited to groups of 5 per session. While maybe not the most conducive way to train for football, Gavin would take this any day over zoom sessions. It has been a challenge to train during the pandemic, but Gavin and Tampines are doing whatever within their means to make the most out of the situation at hand. What worries the Tampines head coach more is an intensification of the infection.

“My biggest concern for this pandemic is a re-occurrence of it. The health and safety of everyone is so important, and the last thing we want is to go into lockdown (again). So, I trust the authorities and the medical experts making the decisions, but you see other countries having a second wave and the ripple effect of that is terrifying. It’s not just about football. Football is the last thing when it comes to these situations. Health and your livelihood is the most important.”

Photo Credits: Tampines Rovers FC​

I had this interview with Gavin sometime in mid-July. While it’s been more than a month and with cases dwindling down, there has been no word from the FAS on the resumption of the SPL. I do hope that things get better and that we see professional football return.

To end off, let me say this. I did not know what I was getting myself into before I interviewed Gavin. Here before me was the head coach of one of Singapore’s biggest professional football clubs. After interviewing him I can say that you won’t find many people as passionate about football and the local game as Gavin Lee. He is a charismatic and inspirational figure who goes the extra mile to achieve his goals. I’m not kidding, even during his “free time,” Gavin reads about football, analyzes fixtures, and watches documentaries all in a bid to further his own coaching ability. He is the ideal role model for anyone who wants to turn football into a career, and it was a pleasure to interview him.

Featured Image Credits: Tampines Rovers FC

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