Darren Teh is no ordinary 24-year-old. Geylang International regular, National Team player, Financial Manager, Musician, Filial Son, Doting Husband, and Young Father are some of the many hats worn by the promising right back. At his age, Darren is an accomplished player who also, as the list above suggests, is riddled with commitments. Yet, despite his various responsibilities, Darren manages to put in excellent performances for the Eagles every week.
It was my pleasure to catch up with Darren some weeks back during the season and discuss at length his footballing journey. An extremely humble and helpful young man, Darren truly is a role model to follow. This is his story.
Unlike many professional players who started their footballing journeys at a very young age, Darren only first started playing football at 11 years old, relatively late for a professional footballer. It was during recess at Rivervale Primary School when Darren first started playing with his friends, but his performances on the field as a goalkeeper caught the eye of the teacher-in-charge of the school football team. As it turned out, the school team needed a goalkeeper and he asked Darren if he was keen on reprising the role as the school’s no. 1. This was a stark contrast for young Darren, who was previously mainly engaged with the Arts – specifically, music. A common occurrence in Singaporean households, Darren learned to play the piano and, in fact, holds a grade 7 certification (though he’s rusty right now because it’s been ages since he last played). Besides the piano, Darren also played the violin when he was younger. As such, he was venturing into uncharted territory when he decided to join the school football team.
However, Rivervale Primary was not well-known for their footballing level and it showed – they were thrashed almost every game by other school teams. That being said, Darren got his first taste, albeit a small one, of structured football with Rivervale Primary. It was also during this period where he moved away from custodian duties and began to be deployed further up the field as a midfielder when he was 12 years old.
While Rivervale Primary was not the best team, Darren showed early brilliance, and his team coach and teacher-in-charge nominated Darren for the Singapore Sports School. Darren was interested about the prospect of playing alongside some of the supposedly brightest footballing talents of his age group. His parents, on the other hand, felt that his footballing development can continue while pursuing a more typical curriculum at a secondary school. It was a decision that Darren agrees with.
“It was not like my parents did not support me. They did support me but they felt it would be better if I go to a normal secondary school. To be honest, at that point in time, I myself was not even serious about [a career in football]. I did not think about it as a [viable] career. So, I ended up going to Guangyang Secondary School, the same school as Gabriel Quak. I never met him in school because of the age difference.”
While primary school may have given Darren a glimpse of what professional football might entail, it was during his time at Guangyang Secondary which opened the doors to the footballing education that he needed. At the core of this was one man – coach Nicholas Wong. Nicholas Wong had been coaching since he was 18 years old, and the experienced youth coach and is still someone that Darren looks up to a lot.
“Nicholas really groomed me into who I am and really, really coached me well. Even today, I would really give him a lot of credit. He’s still coaching, more so at schools. On and off the field, he’s a [really good] friend of mine. At the point of time, I was just 13 years old and he was also quite a young coach, like in his late 20s. There’s more of a [relatability]. Some coaches are like in their 50s and 60s and they’re just there to do their job whereas Nicholas was really like a friend of [the players]. After training, we would always go to the coffee shop and have drinks and stuff [to hang].”
While Nicholas moulded Darren and polished his game, it was not until secondary 2 when Darren could display his talents. Unfortunately, there were insufficient lower secondary players to fill a complete squad and thus, Guangyang could not compete in the C Division. Still, there was a silver lining. Darren and his fellow lower secondary players had the chance of playing with the upper secondary players, and this exposure benefitted Darren immensely. Thankfully, things took a positive turn in secondary 2, when there were enough players to form a team.
“I remember asking my friends to join the school team and told them that we could be going for trainings together. Secondary 2 was when I would regard, I had my first proper competitive experience. [However,] it was secondary three when the turning point happened in my life and I decided that football will be my career.”
Transitioning to Fullback and playing for SAFSA during National Service
A year later, at 15, Darren took the first step to materialize his footballing dream when he went for trials with Tanjong Pagar United for their U-15 COE side. The Jaguars returned to the league that year in 2011. Darren went for the trials alone –not many knew that he went for the trials to begin with, and he knew no one that went for the trials. Back then, tiny Darren knew that his small size limited his chances playing in his preferred centre-midfield role – that being said, being one of the better players in Guangyang, he practically played in every position. He eventually decided to try out as a fullback to play to his strengths in natural fitness. A year later, Darren sought new pastures elsewhere, and a move to Hougang’s U-16 team materialized soon after. Darren wasn’t the only one linking with Hougang, with his Tanjong Pagar coach, Winston Yap, and a few other U-16 Jagaurs joining him as well. At Hougang, Darren played more of an attracting role down the wings – something he is grateful to have experienced given the importance of attacking fullbacks in the modern game. His stint with the Cheetahs would only last a year for Darren for the National Football Academy.
In his last year at Guangyang Secondary, Nicholas left and instead was replaced by Dilwant Singh, who ended up becoming the NFA U-18 Assistant coach and earmarked Nicholas to link up with the squad. Saswadimata Dasuki, better known as Saswa or Coach Saswa, was the head coach of the NFA squad at that time. Darren impressed during his trials and played for the NFA for 2 years. Although, while he was playing at the highest level, it was indeed a bitter-sweet experience for young Darren.
“At 17 years old, it was really an eye-opener for me. I remember that we travelled quite a bit. We went to France and Dubai for training camps and stuff like that. It was pretty sad though because I did not have any international exposure aside from that. [International} tournaments that the NFA teams take part in usually occur every 2 years. So, I was in the batch that was in that in between phase where a tournament had just ended [and I would be too old by the time we take part in the next one]. Only the very good players had been called up to play with the older boys.”
After graduating from Guangyang, Darren took up a private diploma with International Sports Academy (ISA) Singapore. Part of his requirements for his private diploma included working 200 hours shadowing and under the tutelage of his former coach and lifelong friend Nicholas Wong. I had the pleasure of meeting Nicholas sometime after this interview in really coincidental circumstances, and he mentioned how Darren had a real knack for coaching should he ever consider to take it up in the future.
Unlike most Singaporean sons, who pursue their post-secondary education before their National Service enlistment, Darren decided to head straight into national service after he turned 18. He decided to enlist early partly because he didn’t too well in his studies – something he regrets and would advise younger players to concentrate on – but also because he wanted to focus on getting National Service out of the way to focus on his footballing career.
While many complain about their NS days, Darren fondly remember his time as a Canine handler. At the same time, he also remembers playing football on a regular basis. During his National Service, he also spent two years with the Singapore Armed Forces Sports Association (SAFSA) Football team. While limited opportunities came by during his first year with SAFSA, things took a positive turn in his second year, when Kevin Wee became the new head coach of the SAFSA team. Kevin wasn’t the only new addition to SAFSA, as the club was bolstered by a slew of talented players– Ikhsan Fandi, Ammirul Emmran, Taufik Suparno, and Suria Prakash.
Under Kevin’s management, SAFSA was ran like a professional outfit, and the team played in the Island-Wide League. During this period, Darren was appointed as captain and led the team to a treble, winning the IWL, the Cup and the Bogaars Cup (the annual fixture between the Army and Police football teams).
These triumphs during National Service emboldened a young Darren who had limited international experience with the NFA. His experience with SAFSA motivated him to reach his next goal – playing for a S.League club.
Featured Image Taken From Darren Teh’s Instagram (@tehsanity)
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