When one looks back at the 2022 Singapore Premier League season Tanjong Pagar United have had, you can’t but help wonder what could have been.
While the Jaguars retained the core of the squad, they lost defensive lynchpin Shakir Hamzah to injury during the 2020 AFF Suzuki Cup and parted ways with some key members of the squad like Delwinder Singh and Luiz Júnior. Reinforcements were brought in to plug gaps, but many doubted whether they would gel in time before the start of the season.
Those doubts were soon erased when Tanjong Pagar United started the season in stellar fashion. Despite fielding an under-strength bench (due to various injuries), the Jaguars dug deep and managed to clinch a remarkable 2-0 victory against Albirex Niigata (S) in their first game of the season. Besides raising a few eyebrows, the win clearly spurred the team on and ignited an unbeaten streak that lasted the next four games.
The Jaguars assumed the top spot for four consecutive weeks in Round 1 before a 3-3 draw with Tampines Rovers saw them drop to second place. Back-to-back losses to Lion City Sailors and Albirex Niigata (S) followed after, but Tanjong Pagar seemed undeterred. Their impressive first-round point haul provided them with a safety cushion from the rest of the pack. The Jaguars capitalized on this buffer with another noteworthy run of results, seemingly cementing their place in the top 4. For the majority of the season, it seemed that the club was destined for a continental spot – a target the club had set at the start of the season. I once again had the chance to speak to Noh Alam Shah who shared his thoughts on the season thus far.
“We prepared well before the start of the season, fully aware that other continental contenders were in a process of rebuilding,” shares Alam Shah. “Geylang International had acquired an altogether new squad and Tampines Rovers were blooding in more younger players. With any rebuild, it takes time for things to gel together. So, we capitalized on this period of adjustment for other teams and played direct football, gaining the positive results that we did in the first two rounds.”
However, after the bright start, the Jaguars began to lose steam towards the tail end of the campaign, something that Noh Alam Shah anticipated.
“We were expecting a dip in form in the third round after the bright start to the season. Some may say that the turning point was our 4-2 loss to Young Lions in August. Yet, what really hindered our chances was the series of injuries and suspensions that we suffered in the third round. With many key players out, it made our tasks even more challenging.”
Despite the change in fortunes, the club still has one game to go, and although they need Geylang to slip up, securing fourth place will aid their chances of qualifying for the 2023 AFC Cup. Regardless, this season has provided plenty for the Jaguars to cheer.
A key highlight of this season has been the development of the club’s younger stalwarts. Despite changes this season to the U-23 rule, with the number of U-23 players that need to start reducing from three to one, Tanjong Pagar have often fielded more than one hot prospect. Fathullah Rahmat had a breakthrough year in 2021 and this year has been handed more opportunities to continue his development with the first-team. Last season, Fathullah was partnered with Blake Ricciuto in the middle of the park but has had to learn how to work together with El Loco and new signing Mirko Šugić. Likewise, the Jaguars also gave young custodian Karan Sobti, who’s on loan from Lion City Sailors, his first-team debut. It was highly unlikely that Karan could have made his debut at Sailors this season with Izwan Mahbud and Hassan Sunny jostling for the starting keeper spot.
“Our younger players like Fathullah, Karan, and Akram Azman, have done well to step up to the plate. Besides their own individual efforts, a key reason behind their progression this season is the guidance that many senior players have given them.”
Besides giving the younger players some valuable advice, the older heads in the locker room have also demonstrated that they have plenty left in the tank, something that Noh Alam Shah is proud of.
“Khairul Amri and Daniel Bennett have been proper professionals this season. They don’t just act as role models for the younger players but also for other senior members of the team and have created a positive atmosphere in the locker room. That’s something you can’t buy with dollars and cents.”
“Raihan Rahman has also been an exemplary figure. He’s reinvented himself as a Centre-back out of need this season due to various injuries to our central defenders. While it’s not a big positional shift from being a defensive midfielder, he has worked hard in that role. His presence has truly helped stabilize the backline.”
Obviously, results have not gone their way after the mid-point of the season but when we put things in perspective, the Jaguars have come a long way. It’s easy to forget that even though Tanjong Pagar United is a founding member of the S.League and has a rich history, it has been only three years since it rejoined the Singaporean topflight after a 5-year absence.
Rebuilding a successful team takes time, and when you don’t have vast resources at your disposal, that process becomes even longer. Who can forget the 2020 campaign where the club failed to register a single win?
Tanjong Pagar are indeed on the right track, and with the timely return of talisman Shakir Hamzah, they could be set for a successful Singapore Cup campaign.
“We started the season with the goal of winning the Singapore Cup and it still remains the primary objective. It’s partly why we started the campaign with a particular playstyle and why we have in recent weeks adopted another style. After a dip in form in Round 3, we are slowly picking ourselves up. Even against the recent 3-1 loss to Lion City Sailors, we looked good for most of the game, which is all part of our plan to build some momentum to be at our best for the Cup.”
Getting to the final will not be an easy feat by any stretch of the imagination. However, the Jaguars can take heart in their noteworthy performances this season. They might not have significant resources at their disposal like their other SPL adversaries but they can look to their own past for inspiration. The Jaguars were the inaugural Singapore Cup champions in 1998 and the current crop of players will be determined to etch their name in the record books (like their predecessors) by winning the competition.
Can they pull it off? Only time will tell.