Asian Football Interviews

The Mouth Of The North: A Chat With R. Vengadasalam Part 1 – A Brief Overview

When it comes to controversy and immense passion for Singapore football, you don’t have to look much further than R. Vengadasalam. Endearingly called ‘Coach Venga’ by fans and players alike, he also goes by another moniker, ‘The Mouth Of The North.’ An apt name for the Woodlands Wellington icon who runs his mouth and isn’t one to keep things politically correct.

Once he told reporters, “TB is a disease. So is Tiong Bahru.”

Nevertheless, even though Venga has said and still continues to make controversial remarks, you cannot deny that he is one of the most passionate persons when it comes to football in Singapore. His harsh criticisms of the FAS, of local coaches, and the current crop of players is out of love for the game.

Some have labelled him as a colourful character. Others adore him and eagerly await the next thing he says. Whatever it is, he brings attention wherever he goes – something that the league has sorely missed in recent years.

I had the pleasure of meeting the icon of local football, and I would like to stress that I am in no way trying to retell his life story. A full-length auto-biography or biography can only do his tale justice. The focus of this two-part article is understanding aspects of him and his latest endeavour – Woodlands Lions.

Beginnings

Early Influences

Born in Singapore, his parents had migrated from India, and football was not immediately introduced to Venga. It was in Primary 6 when he saw some of his friends play football and after joining in, Venga got hooked onto the beautiful game right away.

It was English football that Venga fell in love with the most, and Derby County became Venga’s team of choice. It’s the main reason why Woodlands Wellington is also nicknamed The Rams. One Derby manager that captivated Venga’s attention was the ever-eccentric Brian Clough. 

Besides Clough, it was N Ganesan that Venga considered a local hero. He fondly remembered how Singapore football thrived during the Malaysia Cup days under Ganesan’s leadership as chairman of the Football Association of Singapore.

Yet, it was Clough’s eccentricity that really shone through. Having watched Clough’s interviews in the past, I truly observed shades of the legendary English manager’s wit, forceful personality and humour in Venga while interacting with him.

“I create controversies just to make sure people come and watch the game,” remarked Venga.

And people did come. Woodlands Wellington regularly packed out their stadiums and fans came in droves. Many amongst the Woodlands faithful adored Venga. Once, when Woodlands Wellington packed out the National Stadium in 1996, he described how fans were chanting his name and by the end of the game, he was running back to the dressing room in only in his underwear. He had thrown everything else to the crowd.

Managing In The Early Years

While Venga is synonymous with Woodlands Wellington, it was at Delhi Juniors where he began his journey as the youngest manager of the club. A short stint with Jurong FC followed, where he learned his trade from K. Suppiah. He returned to Juniors where an episode of eccentricism would cost him a three-year suspension. Unable to field a starting XI due to injuries to the squad, Venga mentions how:

“The game was called off and we didn’t have a team. My team only had 7 fit players left and the authorities kept insisting on the team sheet. So I gave them the England team sheet. I wrote Peter Shilton, Roy Mcfarland, the England team sheet and they suspended me for bringing the team into disrepute.”

During the suspension period, Venga helped other teams like Hougang based Charlton FC to qualify for the National League.

[Woodlands] Wellington

In 1995, the FAS Premier clubs were invited to apply for entrance into the inaugural S.League 1996. To successfully enter the S.League, a club needed a main sponsor in the region of $300,000 and a strong proposal.

Venga with Professor Ho Peng Kee. Photo Credits: R. Vengadasalam

Venga had both covered. With the help of Professor Ho Peng Kee, Venga crafted a solid proposal and with overwhelming support from the community, the club was able to raise a staggering $800,000, which was $500,000 more than the supposed required amount.

A big factor in this raising of funds was the gate-receipts. Wellington FC attracted thousands of spectators to each game, and tickets were often sold out. While local football was definitely a bigger attraction decades ago as opposed to how it is today, this was still an anomaly in the scene. How was Wellington FC able to generate so much revenue from match tickets?

One name – V. Sundramoorthy. Venga signed the national stalwart in 1995 for Wellington and droves of people headed down to catch the dazzler in action (I mean wouldn’t you want to watch Sundram in his Prime?)

“We capitalized on Sundram’s popularity and it wasn’t like Jermaine Pennant’s [move to Tampines] where one man comes to Singapore, does a few things and rips the club of money and goes off. We piggybacked on Sundram’s fame as well as the fame of Ervin Boban, Stuart Young, and Max Nicholson. That’s how we built the club up.

“For me, he was the player. The only thing was that half the time he was injured. Then again, even if only had one leg, he’d still be better than players with two legs. He had unbelievable ability.

“You know the bicycle kick? The true story is that he trained every day for it. Do you know who used to cross the ball to him? Two people. One of his friends and I. I used to cross on the left and his friend crossed on the right. Look around today and see anyone doing that? As long as you have no desire and you don’t work on yourself, you should go be a Sunday League footballer.”

Wellington FC moved to Woodlands Stadium for the inaugural season and the club rebranded itself as Woodlands Wellington. Thus, the S.League era began.

The S.League Years

The S.League was formed in 1996 following Singapore’s withdrawal from the Malaysian football league. It was an attempt to create from within and the league was launched with incredible fanfare.

Under his stewardship, Venga emphasized the importance of fan and community outreach efforts. During recess times, he would go to different schools in Woodlands and hand out pamphlets along with Woodlands players. Besides, schools, he would go to shopping centres as well.

Besides going down to school grounds, the club was also supported by the Woodlands community at large. Woodlands Wellington was also featured in the Town council magazine through Venga’s efforts. These efforts by Venga were quite doable initiatives and it begs the question as to why local sides don’t engage in such measures.

“The Woodlands Wellington management had to be made up of six or seven community leaders. This way, they knew what [the members of the community] want and how they can reach out to them. I remember telling professor Ho Peng Kee that this has to be a community club and he also agreed. He was also well into the idea that the seven MPs in the North must also get involved in the club.”

Granted, COVID-19 may have limited the opportunities for regular community outreach, but connecting with the grassroots and the people in the heartlands is an easy way to drive up support for your team.

His time with the Rams would unsurprisingly be marked by controversy but also many interesting moments, including scouting John Wilkinson. Like I mentioned earlier, I believe these stories deserve a place in an auto-biography. That being said, I do believe it is important to remind people about Venga’s initiatives for the league – which is often forgotten by the public at large.

Photo Credits: Woodlands Wellington

After several years at Woodlands Wellington, Venga would go on to greener pastures, and Tampines Rovers became his new home. His departure also marked a decline in fan engagement by the Rams.

“[Woodlands Wellington] even told my fans not talk to me.”

Why did Venga leave Woodlands?

Well, at the time Tampines offered Venga a deal that was too good to refuse. During his five-year stint with the club, the Stags would win two league titles. Venga recalls suggesting to the chairman that the entire team and coaching staff should be sacked following a 2-0 loss to Balestier. That year, the team got their heads straight and would end up as Champions following that defeat and the threat of losing their jobs. Despite leaving Woodlands for a financially better offer, he does have some regrets about leaving the Rams.

“When I left, I thought that a football club does not need to depend on one person alone but it looks as if when I left, there was a big vacuum. The club tried to fill that vacuum with money but it was not effective. I believe that football clubs are run on personalities – you know local heroes and that’s how we [Woodlands Wellington] were built. I felt that no one wants to buy into the idea of a community-based club. So that’s why I came back to do my own football [initiative].”

After leaving Tampines Rovers, Venga would go on to help NFL sides in a bid to bring them to the next level. Other clubs came to Venga, but while they had the ambition to make it big, their efforts to reach greater heights were lacking.

As mentioned earlier, in 2014, Venga would return to the S.League for a year as Prime League Manager, where he infamously was served a three-match suspension after a heated confrontation with Alex Weaver. In 2017, he would help source out for players for Balestier Khalsa but deep down, Venga realized that it was time for him to launch his own initiative to develop promising young players.

What else does he think about the Singaporean footballing landscape and what is the up to nowadays?

Read part 2 to find out!

Featured Image Credits: Haiqal Tahir

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