Asian Football Interviews

Electric Elijah! Meet Geylang International’s Spark in Midfield

If you had been watching Geylang International’s matches this season, you’d notice that for a good period of time, the club was in a state of chaos. The team was ravaged with injuries, and the ever-inspirational Barry Maguire was on the sidelines for a lengthy spell. Yet, there was a silver lining in that storm – Elijah Lim has emerged as an important figure for the Eagles this season. While other teams usually sub off their under-23 players early in the second half, at times, Geylang could not afford to do that with Elijah.

Even though he had featured in the Singapore Premier League with Tampines Rovers in 2019 and Balestier Khalsa in 2020, Elijah was never thrust into the first team like he had been this season. Playing in all of Geylang International fixtures, the tenacious bull-dog-like midfielder was forced to mature.

Image Credits: Singapore Premier League

Yet, who is this 20-year-old Singapore Premier League regular, and how did he end up at Geylang? That is my aim and I hope you get a better understanding of Geylang’s number 49.

The Sparks That Ignited The Passion

At four years old, Elijah fell in love with football. He grew up leisurely kicking about with his dad, and it was only a matter of time before he decided that he wanted to play the sport professionally. His father guided him along the way, and eventually, he honed his fundamentals.

When he was 8 years old, Elijah began training at a Centre of Excellence during the weekends. Unfortunately, St. Andrews Primary School did not have a competitive football team. Instead, it was his time at the COE that helped him refine his skills during his early years.

After Primary School, Elijah made the jump to the Singapore Sports School in pursuit of his footballing dream.

Yet, during this period, it wasn’t a bed of roses for Elijah, who came close to giving up on the fabled dream of making it as a footballer.

“I was pretty small-statured and there have been a lot of times where coaches will not play me because of my size. It was really demoralizing. Thankfully, I had the support of my family and friends, who did tell me to persevere and push on. Eventually, I believed in myself more and despite the challenges, I managed to play regularly after some coaches gave me a chance. I want to thank Coach Robbie Servais for giving me the opportunity to play in the ‘C’ and ‘B’ Division fixtures. The knowledge he imparted gave me crucial insights that enabled me to become a more holistic professional athlete.”

While at primary school, Elijah started out as a striker but was retrained as a midfielder when training at Fandi Ahmad Academy [now F-17]. As months progressed, his height did not. Eventually, the main man himself, Fandi Ahmad, advised Elijah to drop into a midfield role. Elijah took Fandi’s advice and ventured into a central position in the middle of the park – where he still finds himself today. 

While he may be standing at 165 cm, do not let his height fool you. Elijah makes it up with his energy and buzzes around the midfield – making his presence known to any opponent.

While adapting to his new role as a central midfielder, Elijah drew inspiration from a Manchester United icon – Paul Scholes. A hardcore fan of the Red Devils (music to my ears), Elijah also tried to emulate the likes of Luka Modric and Xavi. These midfield maestros controlled the game from the center of the park despite their relative short height – something that Elijah tries to apply to his game today.

“For me right now, I really like to hold and distribute the ball,” mentions Elijah who’s demonstrated time after time that he’s a solid passer.

Image Credits: J. league

Elijah clearly flourished in his new midfield role, and his development in sport was outstanding during his time with the Singapore Sports School and was actually selected a resounding four times for the school’s individual attachment programme to Omiya Ardija, Japan. Before that, he was selected for an individual training attachment by Football Association of Singapore (FAS), where he was one of six NFA under-16 players who linked up with J2 side Matsumoto Yamaga in 2015 and 2016 (do you recognize who the other five were?) . It was an amazing experience for a young Elijah, who was blown away by the high levels of professionalism that the Japanese players exhibited at that age.

In 2017, He played a key role in helping the school’s Under-16 team clinch the inaugural School Premier League Champions Title as well as the Sultan of Selangor Cup for Secondary School Division.

The Poly Years – Generating Valuable SPL experience

Like previous interviewee Syazwan Buhari, Elijah attended Republic Polytechnic via the through-train programme after his time with Singapore Sports School, and his time during polytechnic would also reflect his increasing time playing in the SPL. As each year went by, Elijah was thrust more and more into the first team foray.

Whilst studying sports management at Republic Polytechnic, Elijah would travel all the way to the East side of Singapore (I think Elijah deserves a lot of praise for his discipline because it is not easy to routinely travel from Woodlands to Tampines and then back home to the North East) to attend Tampines Rovers U-19 team training, which was helmed by Gavin Lee.

Image Credits: Tampines Rovers

Striking a balance between his academics and football has been always important for Elijah, who does intend to pursue a degree and continue his footballing development.

“My parents have never told me to give up football for academics, nor have they told me to just focus on football. On the contrary, they have always been supportive and they keep on emphasizing that it is important to strike a balance between the two. If I had a career-ending injury, I need to have something else that I can switch to.”

It was during one of these U-19 training sessions where then-Tampines head coach Jürgen Raab came down to catch a glimpse of the squad’s development. Raab was impressed by Elijah’s ability and handed the young midfielder opportunities to train with the first team. It was only a matter of time before Elijah was going to make his first-team debut.

Image Credits: Tampines Rovers

In 2019, things had changed. Raab was no longer the man in charge, and Gavin Lee was promoted to take reins of the first team (a position he has cemented since then and has signed a contract extension till 2024). Under Gavin’s charge, Elijah finally made his professional bow at the tender age of 18.

“It was a really good feeling to finally make my debut. Being able to make my debut at such a young age is what young footballers dream of. It was a great opportunity and I was really blessed to have that.”

However, after two years with the Stags, Elijah decided to find greener pastures, but why? And what changes did he face?

“Back then, there were a lot of midfielders. There was Shahdan Sulaiman, Yasir Hanapai, Mehmedovic, Joel Chew and Shah Shahiran. Many players were ahead of me in the pecking order in central midfield and I wanted more SPL action. So, I decided to venture out to other clubs and that brought me to Balestier Khalsa. I definitely had to adapt my game at Balestier because their playstyle was different than Tampines, which was possession-based. There was a lot of running at Balestier but just like in Tampines, I had many good players to look up to like Kristijan Krajček, Fadli Kamis, Zaiful Nizam and Hazzuwan Halim.”

His time with Balestier would be plagued by the COVID-19 pandemic. Unable to attend physical face-to-face training sessions, Elijah needed to contend with Zoom training sessions and regularly clock in a certain number of kilometres a week.

“Obviously, I was sad that this happened but it was important to stay safe. Luckily I had family and friends to support me and it helped.”

Elijah finished the season with 5 appearances for the Tigers and contributed an assist during the shortened 2020 campaign. However, he would not stay long at Balestier, and a move to Geylang would beckon.

May be an image of 3 people, people playing sports, grass and text that says '14 1 49 SINGAPORE PREMIER LEAGUE PUT'
Image Credits: Singapore Premier League

Like other young professional footballers, Elijah aims to turn out for the national team one day and, if possible, play overseas. But he’s realistic for now and believes that getting called up to the SEA Games squad is achievable. Well, he isn’t wrong. As I mentioned in the introduction, Elijah has practically featured in every Geylang match this season.

COVID-19 may have robbed Geylang the opportunity to play in the AFC Cup but he counts himself lucky to turn for the Eagles.

“I am honestly very very lucky to play for Geylang International and I am grateful that they put their trust in me. My internship at Stranger Soccer took up a lot of my time [Elijah had to work from morning to afternoon and host in the evening] and I was missing training sessions for Balestier and the club was afraid that I might not be match fit in time before the start of the season. So, my contract was mutually terminated. During the end period of my internship, I reached out to Leonard [Koh] at Geylang and due to COVID-19 measures, training was shifted to later on in the evening. That meant that I could join training sessions after fulfilling my internship obligations. If it wasn’t for head coach Noor Ali and Leonard, I might not have had a chance at Geylang so I really am thankful for their faith in my abilities.”

Playing regularly for Geylang has allowed him to play against different players and it has given him a valuable opportunity to adapt to various teams’ different playstyles. However, it will be a while before we see Elijah lace up against other SPL teams.

A New Chapter Yet To Be Written: National Service Looms

For every Singaporean son, national service is an obligation and Elijah is no exception. In a few weeks, Elijah will have to hang up his footballing boots and swap them out for combat boots. As he plans for the next phase in his life, it is my hope that Elijah gets the chance to continue his footballing journey.

If it’s one thing that the Football Association of Singapore and the Singaporean authorities need more, I believe that it’s working together to help more footballers gain an opportunity to play during their two-year national service stint. If Goal 2034 is to be a real possibility, then I feel that we need to find a way where incoming full-time national servicemen like Elijah can both serve the nation in their respective vocations and attend elite football training sessions.

While nervous, Elijah is largely excited about the next chapter in his life during NS.

“I think it’s important to look at NS positively and I am looking forward to building my physical strength and endurance. I think it could potentially help the physical side of my game.”

But I am sure that he is looking forward to uttering “ORD Oh!”

Featured Image Credits: Singapore Premier League

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