When the Singapore National Team squad for the Hung Thinh International Football Tournament was announced, many quickly noticed a new custodian among the goalkeeping contingent. Mukundan Maran’s name surprised many at first, but after thinking about it, it was the right call by Takayuki Nishigaya. The Hougang United keeper has put in some solid performances in recent games and is arguably one of the best performing shot-stoppers in the league.
Standing at 1.87 meters, the Hougang United custodian has come a long way to earn his first call-up for the Lions. After all, he took a less conventional route to professional football, and this article sheds some light on the pathway he has taken.
An Unconventional Pathway to Professional Football
“I started off playing as a midfielder in Primary 3, but I soon got converted after my school team coach asked who could play in goal since all our keepers were unavailable,” shares Mukundan. “Yet, ever since then I have continued playing as a goalkeeper and haven’t looked back.”
Nevertheless, it wasn’t until much later that Mukundan dived into the local professional foray. Unlike most Singaporean footballers who came through the NFA or Sports School pathways, Mukundan charted his own course to top-flight football.
“In 2014, when I was in Secondary 4, my friends urged to join the U-16 team at Warriors. I wasn’t getting much playing time in Secondary School and that was frustrating. I wanted an avenue where I could hone and develop my skills since my school team was not providing that to me.”
After acing trial with Warriors, Mukundan continued his stint with the club’s U-17 team before hitting pause on club football. After secondary school, Mukundan decided to pursue his A-Levels with Millennia Institute (MI) and wanted to settle down and get his academic foundations in place.
Education held equal importance to football to Mukun and that was something that his parents had regularly echoed while supporting his footballing aspirations.
“Since Primary School, both my parents have guided and allowed me to pursue my dreams with the promise that I wouldn’t neglect my education. My dad would come down to my school matches, Prime League and SPL matches when he could and my mom would be eagerly waiting for the results. On days when matches didn’t go my way, they’d comfort me and encourage me to keep moving forward and keep my head up. They’d always have my back. This support system extends to my girlfriend and closest friends who help motivate me but keep me grounded in reality.”
Regular First Team Action Before National Service Pause
Once Mukundan was confident enough to juggle both academic and sporting responsibilities and found himself back in the Warriors camp – this time part of the Prime League squad. After a season of finding his feet at the U-23 level, he was propelled to the first-team squad. In 2018, following the launch of the Singapore Premier League, Mukundan found himself being a regular name on the First XI team sheet. Benefitting from the controversial U-23 rule (when teams had to start three U-23 players instead), he clocked invaluable minutes under his belt.
However, it wasn’t easy to continue this juggling act with his A-Levels looming in his final year.
“I’d sometimes head to the dressing room after my classes and study before training starts or leave a little later after completing work post-training. Being a student-athlete was certainly challenging but I have learned a lot from that experience.”
After his A-Levels, however, Mukun faced another hurdle to his footballing development when he enlisted in the Naval Diving Unit for his National Service. For the next two years, football took a back seat as he served the nation, the effects of which the young custodian felt once he finished his NS and signed for Hougang United for the 2021 campaign.”
“I think the years spent in NS created some of the best memories for me but my football ability did take a hit. Not being able to play competitively for two years made it difficult to keep in tune with my goalkeeping skills.”
A Return To the SPL, This Time as A Cheetah
Following the end of his National Service, Mukundan signed with Hougang United, and his two-year absence from the beautiful game certainly meant he had to work twice as hard to make up for lost time. Thankfully, though, under the tutelage of goalkeeping coach Scott Starr and the support of his fellow keepers, the 24-year-old has been getting his groove back.
“Returning to the SPL after a two-year spell, my goal was to get as much playing time as I could and learn from the seniors around me. Zainol [Gulam] and Ridhuan Barudin possess a wealth of experience and regularly impart knowledge to Aizil [Yazid] and myself. Likewise, Izwan Mahbud also gave Aizil and me many tips to reach a higher level. That being said, I haven’t just learned from what they have told me. I have also seen how they push themselves to the next level under the guidance of coach Scott, who has also helped me a lot to reach previously unattainable levels.”
While he only played 4 games in 2021, Mukundan has seen more game time this year but has had to share custodian duty with hot prospect Aizil Yazid, son of former Singapore goalkeeping icon Yazid Yasin. Even though both keepers constantly compete for their First XI position, Mukundan maintains that this competition has fostered a strong between the pair.
“Being the two youngest keepers in the first-team squad, Aizil and I have a good relationship with each other. We constantly push one another during drill sessions and we constantly think of ways to be better. It’s fun because we learn from each other’s strengths and its always special to see each other pulling off saves. Off the field, we get along well and we look out for each other which is always nice to have when sometimes you have 10 other dudes (the outfield players) screaming at you.”
Besides learning how to deal with the pressures of professional football, Mukun has had to look at the lessons learned during his time in MI as he once again finds himself juggling football, his academics and other commitments. Studying Business Administration in Nanyang Technological University, he’s had to miss a few classes. Fortunately, his group mates and peers have been very helpful with updating him on what he needs to do.
The First National Team Call-Up & The Future Ahead
When Nishigaya had to select his team for the Hung Thinh International Football Tournament, he knew that it was his last chance to experiment with national team selections. He had to offer a chance to previously uncapped individuals to demonstrate what they could offer. After all, he needs to bring the best squad to the upcoming AFF Mitsubishi Electric Cup. I think many in the fraternity were expecting some surprise call-ups, but Mukundan did not think his name was in contention.
Hence, the Cheetah was over the moon when he learned about his call-up to the National Team.
“It’s an honour to be called up for the first time and it’s a form of recognition for my performances in the SPL as well as the hard work put in training. Playing for your country is every footballer’s dream and being called up to the national team means I am one step closer to transforming my dream into reality.”
This call-up is surely the cherry on top of a decent 2022 season for Mukundan. He has pulled some spectacular saves in the league, tasted continental football (when he featured in all three games of Hougang’s AFC Cup run) and finally registered his first clean sheets in Hougang colours.
Unfortunately, Mukundan did not feature in either game. However, he believes that this is but a new beginning and after experiencing what it feels likes to be involved for the national team set-up, he’s hungry for more.
Making his first appearance for Singapore is the next target within his sight, but Mukundan is well aware that getting his first international cap takes time.
“I’ve learned many things from Zaiful Nizam and Hassan Sunny and when I finally feature for the national team, I’ll come out knowing that I had done my best and helped the team as much as I could.”
Till then, Mukundan has only one thing on his mind.
“As for the immediate future my goal is to help Hougang secure an AFC spot for next year’s competition! It’s been a tough journey but the race for a continental berth isn’t over. I want to help the team as best I can and hope we finish the season as strongly as possible.”