Asian Football Interviews

An Unrecognized Saviour Between The Sticks- Zainol Gulam Shares It All

Yep, that’s right. Zainol Gulam has left Geylang International, and it looks as if he’s going to embark on a new chapter in his career. When I found out about this, I knew I couldn’t wait any longer and sprung into action.

Singapore, we have a goalkeeper crisis on our hands. Zainol’s departure from the local game should raise alarm bells, for it means there is one less experienced goalkeeper for Tatsuma Yoshida to call on in the years to come. Hassan Sunny and Zaiful Nizam may be retiring from international football to prolong their careers with their clubs. Besides Izwan Mahbud, Syazwan Buhari is probably the only viable option moving forward. Ridhuan Bahrrudin and Mukundan Maran don’t look to be getting minutes ahead of Izwan, granted if Izwan chooses to remain at Hougang for the foreseeable future.

As a Warriors fan, I’ve followed his exploits with Singapore Armed Forces and the subsequently rebranded Warriors FC. A player that certainly deserves more recognition for his efforts on and off the pitch, this is Zainol’s tale.

Beginnings – Learning The Ropes to Save

When he was young, Zainol never dreamed of being a professional player. Truthfully, he never would have imagined that he’d end up playing as a goalkeeper. Even though he was selected to play as a goalkeeper for the Eunos Primary School Football Team, he rarely played. That being said, he did bump into several other SPL stalwarts of the future whilst his school played matches. He remembers one game where Syazwan Buhari and Shafiq Ghani played. Shahfiq scored a goal from the halfway line, already demonstrating how skilful he was in his long-range efforts back then.

Yet, he didn’t find joy playing as a keeper nor sitting on the bench. Instead, he enjoyed playing as a central defender more, and when he headed to Macpherson Secondary School, he trialled in his favoured centre-back position. 

He did not make the cut in that trial, however. It was only in Secondary 2 when he featured as a custodian again. Trying out for the football team a second time, a senior asked him to try out as a goalkeeper. This time, Zainol did better and was selected for the school team. Interestingly, Amy Recha would also feature with Zainol for Macpherson Secondary, and it’s a reminder of how small the Singapore football fraternity really is.

A year later, a senior, Jufri Hassan, asked him to attend Sengkang Punggol’s Under-16 team training sessions. Initially hesitant, he eventually told himself to give this opportunity a shot after much persuasion from Jufri. 

“I remember coach Herman [Zailani] being in charge of the U-16 back then. After one to two training sessions, they handed me a youth contract. I was shocked. Then, the coach talked to me and said the club was interested in me joining the team. So I asked Jufri what was this because this was new for me. He told me to give it a try and I told myself why not. So, I did.”

Sometime after signing for the Sengkang Punggol U-16 team, Zainol was also called up for a National Football Academy U-16 training session. He vividly remembers how Robin Chitrakar was coaching the NFA side and he trained together with Syazwan and other ‘92 players (for clarification, these are players born in 1992 and not the Class of 92). Yet, after that session, Zainol did not want to continue to pursue football professionally. 

While he continued playing socially, any plans for professional football was put on indefinite hold. 

Geylang International – The Proper Launch Pad for a Professional Career?

After a two-year hiatus from the youth scene, another familiar face reached out to rope him back into the professional scene. This time it was Amy Recha. Geylang U-18s needed a keeper and Zainol decided to try his luck again. Back then, the U-18s were helmed by Geylang legend Brian Bothwell.

With Amy Recha. Photo Courtesy of Zainol Gulam.

“I didn’t know much at the time but when I looked at Brian, I was thinking to myself how this guy’s like familiar. I mean I realised who he was not soon after. Thankfully, after a week of training, he asked me to join. I did not play for the first three or four games, but then the first-choice keeper got injured so I had the chance to play for the remainder of the season.” 

Zainol clearly impressed the Geylang hierarchy who awarded him the “Best Goalkeeper for U-18s” accolade. 

He was also given a chance to train with the S.League squad on a couple of chances. However, Zainol was pretty intimidated by then Geylang International goalkeeping coach Ramesh Singh.

“I remember the first session I had changed into my kit and I didn’t know what the protocol was. So, I just sat at the dugout. Then, in his booming voice, he shouted, ‘You changed and you sit there for what?’ And I was thinking, ‘Is he talking to me or what?’ So I apologised and began to stretch. But it was after joining them that I realised that playing football professionally is what I wanted to do.”

Training alongside Singapore goalkeeping icon Yazid Yasin and then hot prospect Siddiq Durimi truly inspired Zainol. However, his stint with Geylang would end after a year. 

“I was over-age and I couldn’t play for Geylang U-18 anymore. So, I was supposed to promote to Geylang’s Prime League squad but Coach Kanan didn’t think I ‘could make it.’ He’d tell you the same thing today if you ask him. Until today, I still disturb him that he rejected me last time.”

Starstruck at SAFFC – Learning From The Best

Yet again, a friend once again offered Zainol a lifeline. It was 2011, and old friend Jufri Hassan informed him of an opportunity at SAFFC (Singapore Armed Forces FC). The moment he arrived at Choa Chu Kang stadium, Zainol was starstruck. He had grown up idolising many of the players at the club. Daniel Bennett, Rhysh Roshan Rai, Mislav Karoglan, Razaleigh Khalik, Indra Sahdan and Shaiful Esah were just some names of a star-studded cast that was managed by the legendary manager himself Richard Bok. 

When it came to the goalkeeping department, Zainol faced some tough competition. He had Shahril Jantan and Hyrulnizam Juma’at ahead of him in the pecking order. Given the circumstances, he wondered if they really wanted him back then. 

“Richard Bok was one of the nicest guys I know. I don’t know why he isn’t coaching nowadays. I always ask him to come back but he says he’s waiting for the right offer. The good thing with him is that he knows how to pick players because he knows what he wants. He came up to me and told me I was not bad – which I took as a huge compliment, especially coming from someone like him.”

A Friendly Fixture between the Uniform Derby teams. Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

Zainol knew that he wanted to play professionally and he did not hesitate to sign on the dotted line after Rezal Hassan asked if he was interested in playing for the club. It was the best decision he made because he learned a lot from the senior players from the club.

Sharil Jantan was especially hard on Zainol but he explained that he wanted Zainol to maintain a high standard and ensure he didn’t repeat mistakes. Hyrulnizam was more of a motivator. Even today, he always messages Zainol with words of encouragement even when he doesn’t have the best of games.

Besides the first-team keepers, he was blown away by Razaleigh Khalik’s work ethic. First to arrive and always putting in the extra work, he was a player that always gave his best on the field. Razaleigh also told me how it was not going to be an easy journey. 

“It was really scary to enter the locker room because from left to right, everyone is a star. Even though they were stars, they rarely acted like divas. They were really nice to me and they really spurred me on. I even remember Rhysh Roshan Rai consoling me after I wasn’t called up for the national U-21 squad for the Newspaper Cup.”

Fazrul Nawaz was one player who also helped Zainol improve his game. 

“He’d ask me to get ready by 3:30 even though team training was only at 5:30pm. But of course, how was I going to say no? If an S.League player asks you to join, you’re obviously going to be excited. It’s Fazrul, you know. So I will always join him and it’ll always be for his finishing drills. I’ll play as keeper for his drills but how was I going to save most of the shots? It was nevertheless a very good experience for a young keeper.”

Other players soon asked Zainol to join them for their extra training sessions, including the ever-clinical Mislav Karoglan, who used to praise Zainol for his dives and reflexes.

Zainol would play with the SAFFC Prime League squad for the next two years and make sporadic appearances on the bench. During this period, Richard Bok would leave and V.Selvaraj would assume the head coach role.

In 2012, Hassan Sunny would join the club and Zainol would forge a life-long friendship with Singapore’s national team goalkeeper. 

“We were running together on the track and I was so nervous. He started to speak to me and through our conversation, I realized he was the nicest guy ever. Then from there our friendship grew and we became the closest of friends.”

SAFFC would also be renamed Warriors FC starting from the 2013 season. However, V.Selvaraj would leave halfway through the 2013 season after a poor run of form. The board believed that Alex Weaver was the perfect replacement and brought the Englishman in (I mean, he did win the 2014 league title with the club).

Weaver was keen on keeping Zainol and had consulted Hassan Sunny about the prospects of promoting Zainol as Warriors second-choice keeper. Unfortunately, that never materialised because, in December 2013, he had to enlist for National Service. 

National Service Roadblock & Temporary Lifelines

When National Service beckoned, Zainol seriously considered giving up his football career entirely. He instead considered signing on with the Singapore Civil Defence Force. However, another familiar name reached out to offer him a lifeline. This time it was Yazid Yasin. There was an opportunity to play for Woodlands Wellington’s Prime League team for the 2014 season but National Service was an immovable hurdle that remained in the way. Thankfully, Zainol’s superiors allowed him to attend training so long as it was after office hours.

At Woodlands, the late Salim Moin would coach Zainol.

At Woodlands. Photo Credits: Zainol Gulam.

“I thought he’d be really strict at first because he has a very stern and serious face. In reality though, he was a really likeable and funny guy. I mean, during games and training, he is serious. He really demands a lot from you, but he’s also very approachable. Woodlands did not do well but there was still that team spirit and it was a real eye-opener for me. At the end of the 2014 season, they offered me a contract for next season.”

However, that move never materialised because Woodlands Wellington indefinitely pulled out of the league due to financial difficulties. It was a crushing blow to Zainol who felt he finally had a real chance at hand to bring his game up to the next level. 

Photo Courtesy of Zainol Gulam.

2015 came and with Woodlands sitting out, Zainol instead played mainly in amateur games. He wasn’t about to let up on his dreams of pursuing a professional career and thus, during this period, he was also training with Tampines Rovers. A friend of his had helped put him in touch with V. Sundramoorthy, the then-Tampines Rovers head coach. However, a move never materialised for Zainol.  

Instead, Singapore Recreation Club swooped in for the keeper, and he featured in the League Cup for the NFL side. A return to Geylang would soon follow, but Zainol would only train with the club. Working together with goalkeeping coach Scott Anthony Starr, Zainol wanted to ensure he improved his game. Scott Starr went the extra mile for Zainol to help him get closer to his potential and push for a first-team breakthrough.

After training long enough, the club was interested in signing him for the 2015 season, but lady luck was not on his side again. Geylang went through a massive overhaul for the 2015 season. The club released many players and backroom personnel, including head coach Jorg Steinbrunner, and thus, that offer got rescinded.

With Scott Starr. Photo Credits: Zainol Gulam.

“Then I had a call from Scott who informed me that Warriors were looking for a new goalkeeper and were interested in me. I didn’t look at the offer and I just accepted it. The offer was pretty okay for someone who did not have much professional experience.”

Warriors FC – A Brief But Memorable Return

After securing his contract with Warriors, Zainol would make his debut against Tampines Rovers in the second half of the 2016 season. He’d do so coming off the bench following a 50th minute red-card to then first-choice keeper Yazid Yasin – that’s right, Yazid was a casualty from the Geylang overhaul.

At the time when Zainol came on Warriors were leading the Stags 2-1. However, with one man down, Warriors would go on to lose the game 4-2. Even though he was commended for pulling some fine saves, Zainol hated conceding goals and it wasn’t the dream debut he had hoped for. He would go on to feature sporadically for the Warriors during the remainder of his time at the club. 

Image Credits: Singapore Premier League.

At the end of 2017, the Warriors stint drew to a close, but how the end unfolded doesn’t sound too unfamiliar for most players. 

It is common for local professional clubs only to issue out one-year-long contracts to players. As a result, players play the season without much job security and three-quarters into that season, clubs usually inform their players if they’re being kept on. For those who are told that they’ve earned an extra year, it’s fantastic news – an additional year of income. However, on the other hand, a frenzy ensues for those set for release, and players frantically search for a new team to call home.

Early on in the 2017 season, Zainol approached Warriors GM Paul to discuss a new contract. However, Paul kept on pushing the discussion back month after month. Then, finally, he informed Zainol that the club would not be renewing his contract towards the end of the season. 

League Cup action with SRC against Hougang United. SRC drew Hougang United 1-1. Photo Credits: Haiqal Tahir.

At this juncture, Zainol seriously believed it was time for him to hang up his boots and move on to greener pastures.

“For a couple of years, I had been trying to look at moves to other clubs but I kept on getting rejected. Then, when Warriors did not want to renew my current contract, I took it as a sign that perhaps it was time to call it quits. It was the third time I considered signing on. Then, I spoke to Hassan and he told me to try one more time. So, I contacted Marko [Kraljević] but he took forever to get back to me. He was in Croatia at the time. I texted William Phang about a possible move to Tampines but unfortunately, a move couldn’t materialise.”

With no other options in mind, Zainol tried his luck with Geylang International, since Syazwan Buhari had moved to Tampines Rovers to fill the void left by Izwan Mahbud. Geylang said they’d get back to him but there wasn’t any response. It was also during this time that Zainol left for Bangkok, Thailand for a holiday. He also wanted to spend some time with Hassan Sunny, who was having pre-season training with Army United there. 

While watching Hassan’s pre-season training sessions and fixtures, Zainol felt the burning desire to play. It was as if his passion had been reignited. After confiding this desire to push on and continue to Hassan, the regular national team custodian urged him to reach out to Narong Saiket, a remarkable goalkeeping coach who helped elevate Hassan to the next level. Coincidentally, it was around the same time that Narong had asked Hassan about any available keepers he knew of for Geylang International. Zainol was not about to let this opportunity slip away and said he was ready for any challenge. 

“For one week, there was nothing. Then, suddenly, one day, I received a text because I had coach Narong’s number. During National Service, I went to Warriors for two weeks, so I had met him briefly then. Back then, coach Narong said he wanted me for the Prime League squad but the club didn’t feel I could make the cut. So, coach Narong messaged me to report at Bedok Stadium the next day at 5:30 pm. Obviously, he didn’t know I was in Bangkok and I was [contemplating] whether I should tell him to give me a few days because I was not in the country. [However], Hassan told me just to depart the next morning because if I didn’t, I might miss this chance.”

And so, convinced by Hassan’s reasoning, Zainol left Bangkok the next morning and a few hours after touching down, he arrived at Bedok Stadium at 5:30pm. Yet, Zainol wasn’t given a contract immediately. He wasn’t even given a contract after a month! 

After two months of training without pay with the Eagles, he was finally offered a contract. While the offer was pretty low, Zainol readily accepted the offer. He did so because not only did it give him a chance to play, but he craved the opportunity to refine his skills with Narong as well. 

Becoming Geylang’s Custodian – Filling Syazwan’s Void 

While he signed with Geylang for the 2018 season, it was only much later when Zainol was handed his first start of the campaign. An injury to first-choice keeper Jasper Chan meant that Zainol was was handed an opportunity to claim the first-choice keeper spot as his own.

“Jasper and I have a really good relationship and we really supported each other. Like we always encourage whoever was playing that game. I always looked up to Jasper as a senior becaus he had a ton of experience. So when I got my chance and took it, Jasper was always there to support me even though he didn’t get to play. There was no ill-feeling between us and I really appreciated his guidance.”

Back then, the Eagles were not doing well at all. Noor Ali had gone to Matsumoto Yamaga and as part of a bilateral exchange between clubs, Hirotaka Usui was appointed as head coach for the 2018 season. However, despite the poor results, there was strong camaraderie within the ranks. 

2018 season. Photo Credits: Singapore Premier League.

“There wasn’t any behind-the-scenes politics or backstabbing at the club. Yes, you could tell the Japanese Coach [Hirotaka Usui] was really raw. I remember he was good but I don’t think he was ready to be thrown into first-team management just yet. I still think he should have been given a longer spell as head coach. I mean, of course, it was an exchange and he was supposed to return at the end of the season anyway. That being said, I believe he should have been given another season, maybe coaching together with Noor Ali.”

2019 would be a better season for Zainol, who helped the Eagles finish third in the Singapore Cup and fifth in the league.

Singapore Cup third-placing fixture. Photo Credits: Singapore Premier League.

His spectacular performances for Geylang also increased his stock value, and clubs were interested in acquiring his services. After all, he had been called up for the national team centralised training sessions that year. One such club that attempted to swoop in for Zainol was Home United. Yet, Zainol wanted to stay on with Geylang because he had signed a two-year contract with the club and wanted to honour it. 

Zero Caps? An International Career That Was Never Meant To Be

As I mentioned earlier, Zainol was called up for the national team centralised training sessions in 2019. However, that was as close as he got to the national team setup. 

“Of course, I understood that you have Hassan [Sunny], Izwan [Mahbud], Syazwan [Buhari] and Zaiful [Nizam]. However, there was one incident where I realised I would never get a chance. I remember Syazwan was injured, Zaiful was injured and Zharfan Rohaizad was in the SEA games. And then, for the third-choice keeper, they called up Adib Hakim. This was for the 2019 World Cup Qualifiers in November 2019. 

“Honestly, I found that really weird. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Adib is not a good player but he did not play a single minute that 2019 season. So I remember that well. I didn’t expect a call-up to be honest, because I knew if I had expectations, I would be disappointed.”

The Pandemic Ushered The End Or Are Structural Issues To Blame?

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly hit every football club in the world, and Singaporean sides are no exception to the effects of the pandemic. 

“I knew most clubs had issues with budgets and my club was no different. I also knew that I was not a national team player and in Singapore, if you’re not a national team player, you can expect pay cuts. If you’re a national team player, there is a certain amount you can expect to get. [National team players] don’t need to worry. So these thoughts were going through my mind. It was then when I considered calling it quits and signing on instead.”

However, Zainol also felt like he wanted to end his career by winning something. It also helped that the club also qualified for the AFC Cup. Winning the league is an undoubtedly gargantuan ask for most local sides given the pedigree of Lion City Sailors, Albirex Niigata and Tampines Rovers. Winning the AFC Cup is a far more colossal feat. However,  Zainol firmly believed that winning the Singapore Cup was a viable option. After all, anything can happen in the cup.

However, as fate would have it, the emergence of new strains forced stricter measures to be enforced in Singapore and consequently, both the Southeast Asian AFC Cup Group Stage fixtures and Singapore Cup got cancelled. Thus, after receiving limited playing time, it was time for Zainol to call time on his career. 

2021 Season. Photo Credits: Singapore Premier League.

Zainol’s story, in many ways, reflects the issues faced by the average player in the Singapore Premier League. Players without enough caps have limited job security, and the limited number of local sides means that hanging up your boots is easier than finding another side. Therefore, I do sincerely feel that Zainol tried his best to remain in the game. 

However, given that he had a strong inclination to leave the beautiful game entirely many times throughout his career, it suggests there was limited support for players like Zainol – an undeniable factor that led to his decision. 

Being a footballer in Singapore requires significant mental strength, not because of the harsh training regimens. Rather, a strong mentality is needed to remain positive, especially since you’re trying to survive on one-year contracts every year. Zainol can count his lucky stars. He managed to play first-team football for several seasons – something many others cannot say. In fact, many talented footballers dropped out of the system way before they can reach their potential. We need to protect our footballers.

Reflecting on his career thus far, Zainol knows he couldn’t have come far without the help of his friends and family, especially his father who has never missed a single game that Zainol featured in.

Photo Courtesy of Zainol Gulam.

He also is grateful to play with many players from the class of 1984. It’s not every day that you can say that players like Hafiz Osman, Ridhuan Mohammad, Baihakki Khaizan, Shahril Ishak and Hassan Sunny were your teammates. To Zainol, these players are truly the golden boys because of the strong mentality that they exhibit. He truly had an underrated career.

Making Saves A Different Way

Zainol Gulam may be known for making impossible saves on the pitch but it seems like he would continue making saves, albeit a different way. You see, Zainol Gulam is going to be a paramedic. From saving shots to saving lives, we wish Zainol all the best in his future endeavours and thank him for his contributions to football in Singapore.

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