If you’re a follower of the Singaporean football scene, Jun Tan is a name that should be familiar to you. If it isn’t, then his company Junpiter Futbol would indeed ring a bell. For the past decade or so, Jun has been photographing matches and interviewing players all around Asia. From meeting footballing icons like Maradona and King Kazu to experiencing stadium riots first-hand, Jun has incredible stories to share. Yet, not many people know of this story – a story that Jun has rarely shared in detail but has finally agreed to shed some light on.
Jun was a budding and serious football player in the past and had been on the fringes of the Balestier Central team in 2001. Back then, he was a regular starter in the Prime League and while he never made his competitive debut, he featured constantly for the first team during friendly fixtures and made the S.league bench a couple of instances. While he was never brought on, in due time, he was bound to make his debut. After all, he was considered for the pre-Olympics Game squad. However, his professional career never materialised. Why? What happened?
Well, that’s what we’ll be finding out in this two-part article.
Milo Soccer School – The Beginnings of A Football Dream
Unlike most football fans, Jun arrived late to the game (but hey, better late than never, right?). Basketball was his first love. Being tall for his age, he naturally took to the sport. However, it wasn’t long before football dislodged basketball from its pedestal, and it would reign supreme in Jun’s heart.
At Holy Innocents’ Primary School, when Jun was in Primary 5, his core group of friends gradually lost interest in basketball and, instead, football became the sport of choice. Like most new initiates to the beautiful game, Jun started as a keeper. To be fair, his friends made a good point that since he was good at basketball, he would be best equipped with handling as a keeper. It also helped that, unlike many young players, Jun was not scared of the ball being launched towards his face.
As time went by, he gradually played further up the pitch, but after trying a bunch of positions, he would eventually play as a defender. It did help that Jun was relatively tall. Yet, there wasn’t an avenue for him to explore competitive football. The Holy Innocents’ Primary and High Schools (Jun moved to Holy Innocents’ High following his PSLE) did not have football teams, but thankfully, Jun would finally receive a chance to pursue football more seriously.
“When I was 14 years old, my PE teacher received a letter from the FAS asking Holy Innocents’ High to send their best players for a selection trial for Milo Soccer School not knowing that we did not have a football team. The teacher knew that my friends and I were really into football and so, we gathered the best that we had and we went for the trials at Hougang Stadium. Unfortunately, I was the only one selected.”
I never heard of the Milo Soccer School scheme before and well, there’s good reason for that – it’s no longer around. Essentially, there were four Milo Soccer “Schools” in each of the zones and Jun was in the North-East one. These zones were also unique because there were different teams in each zone. For instance, the Under-14 team was situated in the Northeast branch and Jun was one of sixty U-14 players – supposedly the top sixty U-14 Singaporean players.
Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings were routinely spent at Serangoon Stadium, and Jun had to work hard. The first two months were crucial for these players as the coaches would select the Singapore Under-14 team from the crop of players who were part of the Milo Soccer School system. While the rest of the pack trained only on the weekends, the Singapore U-14 team players had additional sessions during the weekdays.
Even though he, unfortunately, missed the cut for the national U-14 side, it was both an enlightening and humbling experience for teenage Jun.
“I came from a background where we had no school team and it was mainly void deck football. So, my friends and I always believed that we were the best in our area. Then, the moment when I went for my first training session, I realized the best are really there [at the Milo Soccer School training sessions]. The training sessions also showed how much more work I needed. I remember one training incident where you’re required to juggle the ball from the penalty box all the way to the halfway line. I couldn’t do it. It was a real eye-opener for me and I had to work hard.”
Singapore Recreation Club – The Football Dream Continues
After going through the drills and sessions at Milo Soccer School, Jun realised he could no longer play void deck football to satiate his hunger to play. The Singapore Recreation Club Under 16s would be his next stop. It was too good a deal to pass on as well. Besides having the fortune of training at the Padang, he was also able to enjoy using the multiple clubhouse facilities as a 15-year-old. Jun would spend two years with SRC and even captain the U-16 team. Unlike most non-professional teams, SRC had (and I guess still has) the resources to host foreign youth teams to play against them. Jun revelled during these “international” exhibition matches against teams from various Australian sides.
Towards the end of his stint with SRC, Jun would also be called up to the SRC first-team for friendly matches. That meant having the chance to train alongside senior players, including Singapore footballing icon Quah Kim Song, who was turning out for SRC at the time. He may not have been the spring chicken he once was during the 1970s but it was still an honour to play alongside such a legend of Singapore football.
In 1998, when he was 17 years old, Jun decided to source out for proper opportunities to play. Weekends would turn into mini expeditions for Jun, who would travel to different corners of Singapore for various trials. Then, a chance to train with Marine Castle United Prime League team beckoned and Jun was not going to let this slip away. Staying in Hougang, this was the perfect team for him. However, after training between two to three months, a contract never materialised and he left the club. 1998 was also his ‘O’ levels year and I could not help but ask what his family thought of him choosing to spend his time on football rather than hitting the books.
Marine Castle United Trauma
“At first, my mum was a typical Asian mum. She was never really supportive of me pursuing football. She was always going on about me focusing on my studies. My dad, on the other hand, was more supportive. Then came a turning point. In 1999, I returned to Marine Castle and they actually signed me up this time. That was when my parents saw it as more of a professional career. My dad was especially supportive and he attended all my games.”
Jun also remembers interacting with the pacey Michael Currie – the first English Premier League player to play in the Singapore Premier League. Currie was loaned to Marine Castle from Queens Park Rangers for the 1999 season. And yes, modern-day EPL fans. There was a time when QPR was in the EPL.
However, the professional level was initially very overwhelming for Jun. He remembers how he was sweating bullets during his debut for Marine Castle United. Playing as a centre-back, he did not touch the ball for the first 20 minutes or so. When he did touch register his first touch, it resulted in a penalty for the opposition team.
“Till today, I still swear it was a clean tackle, but the referee didn’t see it that way. So, my first touch in my first ‘professional outing’ resulted in a penalty and a yellow card. For the next 10 minutes, I was finding it hard to concentrate because of that incident. Then at the half-hour mark, they subbed me off. That was my debut. It was very cruel. I never thought that professional football would be like this”
The traumatic debut would set the tone for the rest of his season with Marine Castle, which was really lacklustre at best. After featuring a handful more times, he was released. That 1999 campaign almost killed his football dreams. Self-doubt instead replaced his hopes and dreams of turning professional. After all, it wasn’t like Jun hadn’t made sacrifices for his stint with Marine Castle. At the time, he was studying at ITE Dover and it was a long trip from the West of Singapore to the North East by public transport.
Bouncing Back With Balestier United RC
After his release, Jun would continue playing football with the ITE Dover football team, which was the first time he played football for a school team. However, as luck would have it, it wasn’t long before Jun found a new club to call home.
Not long after his release, Balestier United Recreational Club (Balestier United RC) held trials with the ITE Dover team to scout for potential players for the National Football League (the tier lower than the S.League). Jun wanted to give it a shot, and since it was a rung lower than the professional level per se, there wasn’t as much pressure on him. After a brilliant display during the trials, the Balestier United RC coaches immediately pulled Jun aside and took down his details. When he mentioned he had previously played in the Prime League, the coaches were surprised that a Prime League player was attending an NFL trial. I think it’s worth mentioning here that their reaction indeed suggests how highly regarded the Prime League and S.League were viewed in the early years.
The decision to sign for Balestier United RC and play in a lower level did wonders for Jun. Finishing 3rd in the NFL during the 2000 campaign, Jun found his mojo – this time deployed as a defensive midfielder. Assisting and scoring goals, his development as a footballer did not go unnoticed as the Balestier hierarchy presented him with the “Most Improved Player of the Year” Award.
At the end of 2000, Balestier Central, the S.League affiliate of NFL side Balestier United RC, saw potential in Jun and offered him a contract for the 2001 Prime League season. When the offer was presented, Jun was initially hesitant. The words “Prime League” sent chills down his spine as he recalled the horrors of his debut match at Marine Castle. Was he ready to face the music again? And how then will this tune turn out?
Stay tuned for Part 2 to find out!
Feature Image Photo Credits: Junpiter Futbol
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