Author Archives: Vikram Jayakumar

About Vikram Jayakumar

Passionate about Football and Manchester United.

The Longest Serving French Jaguar: A chat with Anthony Aymard Part 2

Be sure to check out part 1 of this article if you haven’t already

Before I begin with part 2, let me share some of my thoughts about part 1 of this article. The one thing worth admiring about foreigners like Aymard who try their luck overseas is that they often have to risk everything in pursuit of a career in football. That’s something that is fairly missing in Singapore – taking a risk to pursue your dreams. Yes, Aymard had former teammates like Sirina Camara, Franklin Anzité, Nordine Talhi, Jonathan Toto, and Frederic Mendy to aid him when he took a chance by traveling to Singapore in search for a club in 2012. However, the risks involved cannot be understated. He left everything behind in France. Many would see this as a foolish gamble, but I do not. It’s testament to Aymard’s love for football and his desire to become a professional. I truly believe that Singaporean footballers may want to consider doing the same for their own development as professional players. With that out of the way, let’s dive into part 2 of this story…

Becoming the Longest Serving Frenchman at Tanjong Pagar

After a successful trial with Tanjong Pagar United, Aymard successfully secured a 6-month contract with the Jaguars. However, the rest of 2012 was bittersweet for the Frenchman, who relished regular playing time as a starting centre-back, but Tanjong Pagar ultimately ended the season second-last [12th] in the league. Despite the poor league standing, Aymard felt that he showed what he could do to the Tanjong Pagar hierarchy.

“We lost almost every game. It was a very young team with great quality but it was also a new club – well sort of old club that returned – but everything had to be built again. In that 6 months that I played for them, I knew that the manager and chairman [at the time] liked me. At the end of the season, they did not know who was the coach for the next season – whether Terry [Pathmanathan] stay or go – but they wanted me to stay.

Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

“So, I was happy but I wanted to talk a bit about [staying] long term. I know it’s difficult. Many people told me that I’m lucky because in Singapore, you never sign more than one-year contract. So, I asked the boss; I said, ‘can you sign me [on a] 2 years contract?’ He told me its okay, it won’t be a problem. I asked him for an increased salary.”

And he received a bumper salary after penning the 2-year contract with the Jagaurs. Aymard recounts how he was given peanuts while playing for Étoile FC. The only plus side was that he was given accommodation for free. While with Étoile, he was staying right opposite Sunshine Place at Choa Chu Kang Avenue 3 (surprisingly, near me). However, Étoile had a low budget, so they had informed players that they would be housed at “distant” locations to save costs on rental. Heading to training was tough for the then young Frenchman because it took him an hour to reach the stadium via public transport.

On the other hand, it was a totally different story for Aymard when he was playing for Tanjong Pagar during his first 6 months in 2012. He stayed at a nice condominium in Clementi, and, since the Jaguars played and trained at Clementi Stadium, it was extremely convenient for him. After signing the 2-year contract, he relocated to Queenstown, since Tanjong Pagar moved back to Queenstown Stadium. The stadium had been previously occupied by Étoile, who had disbanded as a professional club early 2012.

Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

The following year, in 2013, Tanjong Pagar enjoyed a remarkable season and improved immensely from their poor showings a season earlier. Under the guidance of former Étoile manager Patrick Vallee, the club finished the season in 6th position and reached the final of the Singapore Cup. A new quartet of foreigners, including marquee signing ex-Morocco international and former AS Nancy star Monsef Zerka, linked up with the squad. Aymard was the only foreign player retained from the 2012 season but became an instrumental player that season for the Jaguars. He was no longer the sole Frenchman, however, with all foreign spots filled with French passport holders. It is little surprise given Patrick Vallee was a Frenchman himself. At the end of the season, due to his continued solid performances at the back, he was given a one-year contract by the Tanjong Pagar hierarchy.

The 2014 season was a mediocre one for the Jaguars and it would also proved to be their last. The club had to pull out of the league due to financial troubles at the end of the season. It was a double whammy for Aymard as well, because he tore his ACL towards the end of the season. Unlike the rest of the squad, though, Aymard had one more year left on his contract with the Jaguars and Tanjong Pagar honoured the last year of his contract.

“I had the surgery in Singapre. Then, I went back to France for rehabilitation for a few months and then I came back in 2015, I was under contract with Tanjong Pagar but there is no more training; no more game; no more club. You know the rules in Singapore, because of the contract they still have to pay me. So I finished my rehabilitation some time in February in Singapore at a clinic in Rarffles Place and then I started to train. It was my 5th year in Singapore and I came to know some contacts by that time. I knew the coach in Geylang, Jorg [Steinebrunner], and I asked him if I could come over and just train with [the team] to get fit. He told me it wasn’t a problem. 2015 was not a holiday season but something like that,”

It was definitely a break from competitive professional football for Aymard, who trained with Geylang for the remainder of the year. However, his time with Singapore would soon come to an end, as another Southeast Asian adventure laid in waiting.

The Cambodian Experience & the showdown with Camara that never happened

At the end of 2015, Anthony Aymard got in contact with a French player with Cambodian heritage, Thierry Chantha Bin, who was playing with Phnom Penh Crown FC at that point in time. Thierry gew up in France and had experience playing for French football team academies and lower division teams.

“I did not know [Thierry] personally but he appeared on [my] social media a few times. He plays in Malaysia now but then he was at Phnom Penh. Since he had two passports, he played as a local player and Phnom Penh had a foreign coach – a guy from Switzerland. So I reached out and asked Thierry who told me he’d help out and talk to the coach and see if he’s looking for a foreign player. So, he gave me the contact of the coach who asked me if i can come down for trial next season, sometime early January.”

Aymard didn’t hesitate. He was not about to let go of another opportunity to further his professional career and take on a new challenge. He flew down to have his trial with Phnom Penh Crown and after impressing the coaches, he secured a 2-year contract with the Cambodian titans.

Photo Credits: Maureen Fateh Daryani

The experience with Phnom Peng was a truly unforgettable one for Aymard. After all, it was a completely different experience playing in Cambodia as opposed to playing in Singapore. For one, there were considerably more people watching the fixtures in stadiums. Aymard recounted how Cambodians really followed their local clubs and even during training, fans turned out to support their players.

“We had a really nice stadium. Before I came, all the clubs in Cambodia played in one stadium – the national stadium. It had an artificial pitch and most games were played at 3 or 4pm in the afternoon. But when I came there, thankfully [with the financial muscle of their boss], Phnom Penh Crown had a new stadium and they had such beautiful grass. It was totally new for me.

“There was so much more support from locals and fans at the games. It was totally different from my experience in Singapore. In Singapore, maybe there’s 4 to 5 people working in the office but in Cambodia, the salary of locals might be low but they have so many people doing a wide range of jobs in the office. They do media, they film the training, they do events, and they do a lot of other things.”

Aymard came close to winning the C-league with Phnom Penh Crown during his 2-year stint with the club. However, the club came up short on in both years he was there – with the club finishing 5th in both years. Yet, in 2016, Phnom Penh managed to qualify for the 2017 AFC Cup play-off spot.

2017 would prove be Aymard’s final year however, as the torn ACL injury he suffered 2 years before would come back to haunt him.

Photo Credits: Anthony Aymard

“In 2016, I played really good and the club was very happy with me. I think I was the only foreigner who got retained [yet again] from the 2016 squad who remained with the club in 2017. Then, I remember it was a pre-season game. I had no issues during the game but after the game, when I went back home, I remember my knee, the one I had an operation on, suddenly started to swell really badly. So I said okay, let’s see. Then after 2 to 3 days, it became normal again. Then after another game or intensive training, boom – the swelling happened again. So I told the coach – oh in 2 seasons I had 6 coaches [at Phnom Penh] and it was this Ukrainian guy – and I told him about the issue.

“He told me to rest for our pre-season game in China because he wanted me to be fit for China. He told me that it was important for the boss, the club and everything. But, I said the problem is with intensive training. I told him that I wasn’t sure if I could cope with the training in China. We agreed to see how it goes. So, I played the first game and my knee was normal during the game but after the game, my knee was swollen again. I couldn’t continue on so I went back to the manager and told him I needed to do something about my knee.”

In Singapore, Aymard enjoyed quick and efficient healthcare when he tore his ACL. He literally had a consultation, a diagnosis and surgical procedure all within the same week. He still holds our healthcare system in high regard and knew he was in the good hands of doctors. However, it wasn’t the same in Cambodia. The Phnom Penh medical team wanted to bring Aymard for a MRI, but he didn’t trust the services offered locally. Instead, the club made an appointment with a specialist clinic they regularly sent their players to, which was located in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Photo Credits: Maureen Fateh Daryani

He flew down to Ho Chi Minh and did a MRI with the clinic. The results came back and it was far from good news. While Aymard’s ACL was fine, his cartilage in his knee cap that had issues. He flew back to Ho Chi Minh two weeks later for an operation that sidelined him for 4 to 6 weeks, and it was heart-wrenching for Aymard because he had to miss a golden opportunity of featuring in the AFC playoff round. What made things worse was that Phnom Penh Crown was supposed to face Home United in that tie.

“I was supposed to play Sirina but I didn’t get to play the game. It’s a crazy story because Sirina and I are like brothers. We only played together for one year [at Étoile] but we lived in Singapore together for 5 years. I remember during that match I was in the stands. It was very sad. [Sirina and I] knew for a few months that we were going to be playing that match for a few months and we were looking forward to it.

“The surgeon told me 4 to 6 weeks I would recover but in the end it took me 6 months to recover. Surgery was okay and everything but my knee was never the same after that. It was as if my knees had no power and my quads became so weak. It was always a bit painful to train. The club was very upset with me. At the end, I finished the season in the last 3 to 4 months. I finished the season so-so. I was really playing on one leg. It was [still] very painful.

“So, the club doesn’t renew my contract and then for me. And my first son, was born in Cambodia, you know in 2016. My family was with me for the whole 2 years in Cambodia. After the club didn’t renew my contract, I wanted to go to Malaysia – even though I knew my leg was in such a bad condition. I was looking for one last club, one more season and than I told myself its time to go back home.

“So, I went to Malaysia. I was training with a club in the North in Ipoh. It was PKNP and I stayed with them for 10 days. It was good. I played 3 to 4 friendly games but you know in Malaysia, they want 190cm [height] for center-back while I’m 180cm [tall]. So they said I’m quite small for centre-back and they told me no.”

After the failed attempt in Malaysia, together with his wife, Aymard decided that it was time to return to France. He played Sunday football for fun for a bit but now he’s almost stop playing altogether.

Life After Football

Returning to France, he had to make money for his family, and so he worked at a college and helped to oversee the academic and character progression of students for a year. While at the side, he was setting up an online business. Nowadays, family responsibilities and taking care of his online business takes up most of his time.

“No more football for me. It’s just watching the TV and supporting my hometown club [Le Puy]. Bringing the family to the stadium every Friday to watch the game.”

Aymard was supposed to return to Singapore for a family holiday this past April, but COVID-19 dashed all plans.

“I booked a ticket and the hotels. I was supposed to come to Singapore for 5 days and then go to KL for 5 days and then Bali for 10 days and then one night in Singapore before returning to France. I managed to get the refund for everything but it’s sad. My wife is French but her roots lie in Indonesia. I met her while in Indonesia and this was the time when I was playing in Singapore. She had gone back to Jakarta when I was teaching at the college in 2018 but man, I haven’t been in Singapore for five years now. I really want to come back.”

Even though Camara and Aymard missed the chance to face one another in that AFC Cup Play off fixture three years ago, they still remain very close. In fact, they met each other last Christmas and went out together with Franklin Anzité.

“My experience in Asia, it changed me a lot you know. It is something very special for me. I still stay in contact with Asraf Rashid, Syed Karim and Hafiz Nor. Hafiz Nor is my guy; a very good player. Everything changed when I played with Tanjong Pagar. It was playing with local players that taught me a lot and mixing with them I learned so much about the racial and religious harmony that exists in the country. I’ve never seen a country like this where there is so much respect for each other’s religion. Like, having holidays for the Hindu special days, the Muslim special days, for the Christian special days. France really needs to learn from this.

“I have no regrets in my career. You have to see where I come from, an amateur background – this was my dream. In 2014, we had become one of the more senior foreign players in the league. In Singapore, foreign players do not last that long but I am disappointed with the ACL. If I had no ACL, I may have had the chance to go to another club.

Photo Credits: Sirina Camara

“At the end of 2015 when I was training with Geylang, I had an offer from Hougang United. Then, their striker was Josef Kaplan and I had a good relationship with him. He was at Geylang for the 2015 season and he told me that he had already agreed to a contract with Hougang. [Kaplan] told me he’d talk to the coach and see if they’d be interested. I went to Hounag and had a two week trial and they liked me. They offered me a contract but I couldn’t agree to the terms because like most clubs, I had to share an apartment with another player but I had my wife with me. She was pregnant and we will have a son in 2016 so I needed privacy and some space for my family.”

From something that was supposed to be a year-long stint in Singapore, it turned out to be a quite an adventure for Aymard. Coming to Singapore opened up a professional career for him, and it also gave him the opportunity to meet his wife. It also gave him life-long friends. Étoile FC brought Camara and Aymard together but it was their time playing for local clubs that brought them closer to one another. The football dream may be over, but the friendships and memories forged here look to last.

Featured Image by Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

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It would appear that I truly have a knack of tracking down former Étoile FC players…

To ardent Tanjong Pagar United fans, Anthony Aymard is not an unfamiliar name. The French defender spent 3 seasons with the Jaguars between 2012 and 2015. I managed to track down Anthony Aymard recently and interview the player about his time in Singapore and journey as a footballer. In part 1 of his story, I will look at how he makes the move to Singapore and plays for Étoile, his return to France, and how he managed to secure a contract with Tanjong Pagar – interestingly where he’d go on to become the longest serving French player for the club (and mind you, they had a number of Frenchmen between 2011 and 2014).

Beginnings in Central France

Like Sirina Camara and Jonathan Toto, Aymard came to Singapore through Étoile FC in 2011. However, unlike his peers, he never came from a professional youth set up. Born in central France, Aymard grew up in Saint-Étienne and rose through the age groups of Le Puy Foot 43 Auvergne. Back then, Le Puy was an amateur club, but it has since become a semi-professional outfit. The team currently plays in the Championnat National 2, the 4th tier of French football. After years playing at various stages of the youth football, Aymard managed to break into the first team set up in 2009. During one such first-team training session, his life was about to change.

Aymard Positioned Bottom Extreme Left. Photo Credits: Anthony Aymard

Aymard turned up to training and noticed a new face, someone who was about to change his life. This individual was none other than ex-Gombak United player Johan Gouttefangeas, the man responsible for the creation of Étoile and launching the French-based club in 2010. Gouttefangeas actually came from the same city as Aymard. Even though he was not playing for Le Puy, he had been training with the club for a while. Soon, Aymard and Gouttefangeas became acquainted. Gouttefangeas, impressed with Aymard’s ability, discussed his impending project with Étoile.

“He told me that [since] I just started playing at the senior level at 20, I think [by going to Singapore], I could really do something. He said, ‘you could go there and try to see if you could break into the team. Maybe you could could come in as a substitute for games.’ Either way, he said it would be a good experience for me.”

Aymard was incredibly interested in the Étoile project, but he did not lie. Had you asked him where Singapore was on the map, he wouldn’t have been able to tell you.

As the Étoile project increasingly materialized, trials were conducted sometime in late 2009 for French players to be recruited for the club in Singapore. Aymard may have linked up with the 2010 side that won the S.League in their debut season. Unfortunately, he suffered a serious injury nearing the trials that sidelined him for a couple of months. As such, he had to miss the trials for the 2010 season.

Yet, in early 2011, an opportunity to play for Étoile beckoned once again for Aymard as the club held another trial at Toulouse. After the club’s success of clinching the S.League title, they wanted to continue their momentum but only retained a few players, with many either returning to France, joining Singaporean clubs, or transferring to other teams in the region.

“I remember getting a call on the 31st of December and I was with friends at Barcelona for holiday. The call was from Gouttefangeas and he asked if I could come down to Toulouse next week for a trial. And so I said okay.”

During the trials, Aymard really stood out because he realized that he came from the lowest footballing level. Other players had either played professionally or semi-professionally. He was the only player who came from a fully amateur background. Despite the gulf in level, Aymard shone brilliantly during the trials and Gouttefangeas rang him up a week later to offer him an opportunity to play in Singapore.

Photo Credits: Anthony Aymard

“I was still a student at that point and I had 6 months left for my degree. So, I had to discuss this with my friends. My dad told my I’m insane and questioned what I was going to do there [in Singapore]. I told him I needed the experience and justified the move saying I will come back learning how to speak English. The funny part was that, since I was only with the French players, I went to Singapore with zero English and I came back with zero English. The idea was to go to Singapore for a year and come back to finish the remaining 6 months of my degree.”

The First Season with Étoile and Return to France

Aymard left Paris and headed to Bangkok to link up with the Étoile squad for a training camp and played a series of friendlies against Thai sides, including Muangthong United. Playing in humid and hot temperatures was a challenging experience for the Frenchman.

Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

“We played one friendly against Muangthong, a good team in Thailand. [The Étoile players] didn’t know each other but we could all see that there was quality in the team. I remember playing the match at 3pm. For the first 30 minutes, we smashed 2 goals past them. Then, after that, we were done. It was so hot and we were all exhausted. Then Muangthong scored a few past us and we lost something like 4-2.”

After a 10 day pre-season stint at Thailand, Aymard headed to Singapore for the Charity Shield against Tampines and was pleasantly surprised to find his name in the starting eleven. Usually playing as a centre-back in France, he played at right-back for that match but didn’t expect to start much later for the season, given his lack of professional experience. Yet, Aymard found himself playing quite a bit that season. In fact, he was the primary right-back for Étoile and played a total of 26 games.

Despite the significant game time, Aymard and co. were unable to repeat the momentous feat of their compatriots a season earlier. The French-based club finished in 5th position, which was disappointing to say the least. It would be the final season for Étoile in the S.League, and the club pulled out of the league altogether, opting to focus on grassroots football instead – something that Étoile is still engaged in. Aymard reveals that monetary issues led to the closure of the club. Towards the end of 2011, salary problems plagued the clubs for months, with the club paying partial payments of their salaries. In the end, Étoile managed to pay most players who came back to Singapore for the 2012 season. Yet, there were also some, like those that did not return, supposedly missing 2 to 3 months of their salary.

“You know, the last 2 to 3 games of the season. I remember that some players were talking in the changing room that if they recieve no salary, they would not play. The boss didn’t want word to spread around outside of Singapore. So, he would pay some money urging the players to play and promising them they will get the rest later on.”

Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

“Johan Gouttefangeas was the chairman of the club but he was not the financier of the club. There was some businessman in Singapore financing it and so I remember filing a report with MOM (Ministry of Manpower) and in 2 to 3 months I received my money. I remembered before the report with MOM, I kept on emailing him and emailing him but there was nothing, no response. Then after the report, I remember the [financier’s] secretary calls me up and tells me they have the money and whether I could come on down to Raffles Place. I remember that. She gives me a cheque and I was kind of [uncertain] because when we were playing at Etoile, we would cash in the cheques [issued to us] but they would bounce back. There was no money.”

Aymard only received his owed salary mid-way during the 2012 S.League season when he returned to start his second chapter in Singapore. This time with Tanjong Pagar. Also it’s important to note that the financier is not associated with Etoile FC Academy run by Ludovic Casset.

Return to Singapore and The Quest to Find for a Club

After the end of the 2011 season, Aymard went back to France and waited patiently for an official contract from Étoile. The club officials had promised the players that the 2012 season would be better financially if the club kept going. However, the contract never came. Instead, an email explaining the club’s decision to pull out of the league entirely.

Unlike some of his other teammates, Aymard had limited contacts and had no chance to try his luck elsewhere in the region. Neither did he have a chance with other clubs in Singapore because they had mostly filled out their foreign player slots by the time Étoile’s decided to exit the league. Instead, he played for 6 months with Le Puy yet again and also juggled working at Decathlon during this period.

The goal was to try his luck yet again mid-way through the S.League in June. Aymard knew Sirina Camara was still there, and he often called Aymard to come to Singapore for holiday and to try. So he decided to try his luck in Singapore with no offers on the table. Thankfully, he did have friends in the country. Besides Sirina, he also knew Jonathan Toto, Franklin Anzité, and Frederic Mendy.

Franklin Anzité was away on international duty with Central African Republic when Aymard arrived in Singapore and gave his housekeys to Mendy so that Aymard could have a place to stay while searching for an opportunity.

“I prepared my CV but I really had no contacts whatsoever. Then I recalled something. In 2011, I remember one of the biggest sports channels in France came over to Singapore to do a documentary on Étoile. They followed us around and interviewed us and showed our game against Tampines. So I looked up the documentary on youtube and I saw a FAS representative who spoke in the video and I took down his name.”

This FAS representative was none other than Ridzal Saat, who was Deputy Director for Development and Planning in the FAS. In 2014, Saat would be headhunted by the International Rugby Board (IRB) to become its Services Manager for Asia.

“I tried to find his contact and I did. So I emailed him before leaving for Singapore, asking about any way I could reach out to clubs to ask about transfers. Three to four days later, 24 hours after landing in Singapore, [Saat] emailed me back. He informed me that he heard Tanjong Pagar was looking for new foreign players after letting go some of them. He gave me their manager details who I contacted and the manager asked me to come the next day for training at Queenstown Stadium.

“I remember telling Sirina when I landed I have no club. Sirina responded telling we could go to Hougang and here and there to try and get me a club. Then after Saat’s email the next day, I told Sirina I’m training with Tanjong Pagar. He was shocked at how fast I managed to get a trial.

“The coach at the time was Singapore legend Terry Pathmanathan and he was a very strict guy. You know, no smiles. But, he was a centre-back as a player and he was focusing on me a lot. There was another player on trial and that was Carlos Delgado. That time they already had 2 foreign players and Tanjong Pagar needed just two more to fill their foreign player spots. After 1 to 2 players, the assistant coach, Tokijan, told me to go and take the beep test.”

Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

Thankfully, Aymard managed to pass the beep test and he was offered a 6 month contract. What is truly remarkable is how lucky Aymard was. He returned to Singapore in June 2012 with absolutely nothing – no concrete offers whatsoever. He had a return ticket a month later. To him, if he had received a contract, he would stay. If not, he was going to enjoy this month long vacation with his former teammates before returning home and deciding what’s next. Yet, the stars seemed to have aligned in his favour and everything worked out just fine for the talented Frenchman.

In Part 2, I look at Aymard’s time playing with Tanjong Pagar and later on with Phnom Penh Crown Football Club as well as what he’s up to nowadays.

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Sensational Stipe: The missing piece for the Sailors?

All eyes would have indeed been on Stipe Plazibat for this fixture. The Croatian transferred from Hougang United to the Sailors during the league’s suspension. He was brought in to replace Australian forward Andy Pengelly, who returned home to Australia following the outbreak of the Coronavirus. Pengelly came in with a lot of promise. He scored an impressive 52 goals in 34 games for the semi-professional outfit, Brisbane Queensland National Premier League (NPL). While it would have been interesting to see how Pengelly would have fared in Singapore, I don’t know if he was what the Sailors needed. He could have been a “Hidden Gem” that potentially set the league on fire. I mean, he did score in his first game for the Sailors. However, he could have struggled later on as well. We would never know. 

Stipe, on the other hand, is a proven striker in Singapore. Scratch that, he is arguably the best foreign player in our shores right now. With him leading their frontline, the Sailors have that statement signing that seemingly eluded them at the start of the season. His double against the Eagles brings his tally to 11 goals in 7 appearances for this season. The forward scored 9 in 6 for Hougang before the league’s suspension. 

At the start of the season, the Sailors looked like a disjointed team that had no bite. Pengelly scored the first goal against Tanjong Pagar, but the subsequent 4-0 thrashing by Tampines showed that the Sailors had a long way to go. The long break of 211 days certainly helped to promote team cohesion, and that probably helped build chemistry. That being said, I Stipe Plazibat’s acquisition helps to lessen the load on Song Ui-Yong and Sharil Ishak, the two primary sources for goals for Home United for the past couple of years. 

This is the Sailors’ first win of the season, and it sees them move up to 6th place. However, with two games in hand, they could see themselves top of the table if they win both fixtures. The Sailors play against Albirex Niigata next, and a win against the three-time league champions would really emphasize their calibre. It would be a real test against the White Swans though, who cruised past Young Lions in a 4-0 win this past weekend. Geylang, on the other hand, are now in 5th place after the loss and host Balestier Khalsa this Saturday. Based on Balestier’s match against Tanjong Pagar, Geylang have an excellent chance to come away with a victory.

Featured Image: Singapore Premier League

The Singapore Premier League is Back: Hougang Stun Tampines and Tanjong Pagar Made to Rue Missed Chances

After 211 days of local professional football being absent from our TV screens, the Singapore Premier League has finally resumed. However, there were certain changes made by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS). Instead of a three-round league, only 2 rounds would be played, with cup competitions cancelled. Moreover, just like many of the European […]

Why the Singapore Premier League should adopt a Franchise mode

While the national team has been relatively weak in recent years, Singaporeans are very much still football-crazy. From diligently watching Premier League matches to playing Futsal with their friends, football is not just a way of life for many Singaporeans, but it is almost a religion. Growing up, I would often bond with my friends […]

English Football’s Hostage Crisis

How “Project Big Picture” hides its nefarious intentions behind a veil of perceived benevolence… Yes, this is a very strongly worded title. It is intentionally done so, and you will see why soon enough. This past weekend, the Daily Telegraph leaked a proposed plan for financial restructuring and debt relief within English professional football. This […]

The Singapore Premier League is Back: Hougang Stun Tampines and Tanjong Pagar Made to Rue Missed Chances

After 211 days of local professional football being absent from our TV screens, the Singapore Premier League has finally resumed. However, there were certain changes made by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS). Instead of a three-round league, only 2 rounds would be played, with cup competitions cancelled. Moreover, just like many of the European leagues, 5 substitutions are allowed as opposed to 3. More importantly, there is a lot at stake for clubs this season, given how the top 3 teams will be eligible for continental competition next season onwards. The revisions to the AFC Champions League means that the top-placed Singaporean club would have an automatic berth in the group stages, and for the first time in a decade, we will definitely have a Singaporean representative in Asia’s premier continental competition. The second and third placed Singaporean sides would have an automatic place in the AFC Cup group stages.

Kicking the restart of the league off were Tanjong Pagar United, who played against Balestier Khalsa, and Tampines Rovers, who were up against Hougang United. I really wanted to catch both games of the day, even though they occurred simultaneously at 5:30pm. I circumvented this issue by streaming the Tanjong Pagar United vs Balestier game on my phone while I caught the Tampines vs Hougang tie on my computer.

It was intriguing to see a number of players I interviewed the past few months return to action. Syazwan Buhari, Anders Aplin, and Ignatius Ang featured for Tampines Rovers, Hougang United, and Tanjong Pagar United, respectively. It was also good to see Gavin Lee. Delwinder Singh unfortunately was serving a two-game suspension after getting sent off against Albirex Nigata in the Jaguar’s last match before the suspension of the league.

The Tampines and Hougang fixture was an interesting one because both clubs were playing in the AFC Cup prior to the suspension of the competition. The AFC Cup was slated to resume in October, but the competition unfortunately got cancelled, and we would have to wait till next year’s edition. Meanwhile, I was curious to see how Tanjong Pagar would fare. The club rejoined the 2020 edition of the SPL after sitting out of the league for the past 5 years. Many have written them off as whipping boys, but in their first two matches they showed real gusto in their performances. I wanted to see their development as a team.

Tampines Rovers vs Hougang United

Ready with my streaming “set up”, I waited patiently once both matches kicked off for the first goal of the evening. Unfortunately for Tampines, it was Sahil Suhaimi who clinched the first goal in the SPL after 211 days. The former Warriors right winger executed a thunderbolt of a free kick from a really tight angle. 3 minutes later, rising star Farhan Zulkifli tapped in a goal as the Hougang frontline managed to capitalize on the leaky Tampines defence. The Stags were definitely riled up after going down 2-0. Emotions ran high after a scrappy tussle between M Anumanthan and Daniel Bennett, with players from both sides exchanging harsh words with each other. That set the tone of the fixture, and the match was riddled with heavy challenges from both sides after that.

Tampines began the second half much better, and Gavin appeared to calm the players down during his half-time team talk. Both teams made changes for the second half with the Stags bringing in Taufiq Suparno. Taufiq made an immediate impact after the break and the Tampines attack looked menacing, winning a free kick in the 47th minute of the match.

Farhan Zulkifli had the opportunity to finish off Tampines, but he squandered his shot before colliding with Syazwan Buhari. He would rue that chance, because a minute later Nakamura lobbed the ball into the Hougang penalty box and Irwan Shah managed to convert his header. The comeback was on. Tampines played with renewed confidence and continued to try their long ball approach to find an opening. Once again, Nakamura supplied another lobbed pass to the box, with Madhu Mohana the inteded recepient this time round. The Tampines left back managed to recover the ball after an awful first touch and crossed it over to Irwan Shah, who converted the chance, only for it to be ruled offside. Unfortunately, the SPL does not have VAR like the European leagues and thus, the goal could not be reviewed. It was interesting how in that moment, I was reminded of a time when matches were played without VAR. Hougang similarly had a goal ruled offside in the 86th minute of the match. Nakamura’s long range effort came off the post, but Suparno who had a clear view on goal stood rooted to the spot, unable to convert the rebound properly. Taufiq probably thought he was offside, but the flag stayed down.

Tanjong Pagar United vs Balestier Khalsa

In the other match, play was more scrappy. The Jaguars dominated possession and looked more threatening than Balestier but nether team could break the deadlock in the first 45 minutes. Shuhei “Jumbo” Hoshino came close to scoring for the Tigers just before the break, with his shot inches away from the frame of the post just before the end of the half. Ignatius Ang was brilliant for the Jaguars in the first half, frustrating the Balestier backline, and his runs forced the Tigers to concede multiple free kicks at the edge of the penalty box. Yann Motta however, was unable to make the best of the free kicks.

Poor defending from Tanjong Pagar allowed Ensar “Bruno” Brunčević to head in a simple goal from a Balestier corner and giving the Tigers a lead in the process. The massive Serbian was left unchecked and headed in with ease. After the goal, Tanjong Pagar sprang back to life. Ignatius Ang came close to equalizing in the 56th minute, but headed wide from a delicious cross by Takahiro Tanaka. Only registering a single shot on target in the first half, they tested Zaiful Nizam a number of times, but the Balestier custodian managed to keep the Jaguars out with a series of spectacular saves. Balestier came close to doubling their lead but Takahiro Tanaka managed to cut off Haswan Halim’s cross in the 71th minute. The Tanjong Pagar onslaught continued but nothing materialized. Ignatius Ang’s free kick in the 80th minute reached Suria Prakash, who was unmarked in the 6 yard box. However, Yan Motta was similarly unmarked during a corner but his header was off target. Balestier were vulnerable in the back and were hanging onto a thread. They were desperate for to cling onto their meagre 1-0 win and tried everything in their means to keep things that way. Zaiful Nizam was booked for time wasting as he delayed his goal kick.

Tanjong Pagar coach Hasrin Jailani was hilarious when he was unhappy with Faritz Hameed being shown a yellow card. He was speaking with the 4th official and questioned the validity of the booking, arguing that since advantage was given, the yellow should not stand. I chuckled when the cameras managed to capture his response when he regrettably conceded defeat to the 4th official and exclaimed “I’m a PSLE student.”

So what did I learn? Well, a ton.

Learning Points

Match sharpness will be an issue for the first few fixtures. After such a lengthy lay off from competitive professional football, players were naturally rusty. We saw this happen after other leagues restarted during the summer and it will be a while before players get used to the intensity they were used to prior to the suspension of the league.

The match also marked the return of Baihakki Khaizan to Singapore Football, who was substituted in the second half. The veteran defender had spent the last 2 and a half years in Thailand. Bai played a decent game and I think the league seriously needs to rethink the cap it has set for over-aged players. Currently, there is a restriction imposed on each club where only 6 players over the age of 30 can be registered. Granted, I know the move was put in place to increase playing time for younger footballers, I think the rule needs to be evaluated again.

It was good to see the return of Luiz Júnior as well. The Brazilian forward, who featured in same Brazil U-17 team alongside the likes of Oscar in 2007, was injured earlier in the season, and he is one of the few players who was happy with the lengthy suspension of the league as it allowed him to recuperate without additional pressure. While he did not score in this fixture, I think it’s only a matter of time before we see him banging in the goals.

I was also impressed with how effective the Hougang defensive partnership was. Anders Aplin and Zac Anderson played well alongside each other and were effective in silencing Tampines forward Boris Kopitović.

The Jaguars could have easily won the game but their players squandered golden opportunities handed to them. Suria Prakash repeatedly missed chances and an unmarked Faritz Hameed squandered a final effort as well. Also, it was rather weird that the referee ended the Tanjong Pagar game 20 seconds earlier than expected. 15 to 20 seconds could have made a difference, so I’m kind of bewildered by that decision. That being said, Tanjong Pagar need to learn from this game and really take their chances when given to them.

Balestier now find themselves in 2nd place after the win against Tanjong Pagar, who now sit in 7th. Tampines are still at the top of the table with 9 points despite the loss, but Hougang have a game in hand at 3rd place with 7 points. It will be interesting to see tomorrow’s matches as well: Lion City Sailors take on Geylang International while Young Lions face Albirex Nigata. You can be sure that I will once again catch both matches simultaneously.

I’m just really excited for local football to be back.

Featured Image: Singapore Premier League

Why the Singapore Premier League should adopt a Franchise mode

While the national team has been relatively weak in recent years, Singaporeans are very much still football-crazy. From diligently watching Premier League matches to playing Futsal with their friends, football is not just a way of life for many Singaporeans, but it is almost a religion. Growing up, I would often bond with my friends […]

Bouncing Back: A Chat With Tampines Rovers No.1 Syazwan Buhari

In the past decade, two goalkeepers have dominated the national spotlight and have been used interchangeably. Don’t get me wrong, Izwan Mahbud and Hassan Sunny are great keepers. In fact, they are arguably Singapore’s greatest ever custodians in the past two decades. They have put in consistent performances for club and country over the years […]

Taking Roads Less Traveled: The Anders Aplin Story

Anders Aplin’s footballing story is an interesting one. In 2018, he made headlines when he became the first Singaporean player to sign with a Japanese team. Even though it was a loan move to Matsumoto Yamaga F.C, the deal caught my attention primarily because Anders Aplin was not a household name. 2 years earlier, Singapore’s […]

English Football’s Hostage Crisis

How “Project Big Picture” hides its nefarious intentions behind a veil of perceived benevolence… Yes, this is a very strongly worded title. It is intentionally done so, and you will see why soon enough. This past weekend, the Daily Telegraph leaked a proposed plan for financial restructuring and debt relief within English professional football. This […]

Some of Manchester United’s Unanswered Questions before the start of the season

While the Premier League has officially started, Manchester United will only begin their campaign this weekend against Crystal Palace. The Red Devils were given an extended break after progressing to the semi-finals of the Europa League, and thus, their supposed opening fixture against Burnely got postponed. While other teams kickstarted their season, the Red Devils instead played a friendly against Aston Villa, losing 1-0.

Sure, a 1-0 defeat was not a total disaster and there were some positives to be taken away. The idea of the match was to give the squad some much needed minutes, and Donny van de Beek showed a lot of promise. However, I think specific issues need to be discussed following the friendly fixture, starting with a pertinent issue I have been raising for a while now:

What’s going on in the First-team Transfer Department

Donny van de Beek is the only first-team player that has arrived at Manchester United. The 23-year-old arrived from Ajax in a £35 million move. However, despite rumours of Jadon Sancho’s imminent arrival, attempts to hijack Liverpool’s move for Thiago Alcântara, and alleged reports that Alex Telles flew down to Manchester to discuss terms, no other transfer has materialized.

I understand that it is crucial that Manchester United not rush into transfers and simply overspend to acquire their targets. Yet, at the same time, as I see other clubs like Chelsea, Manchester City, and Arsenal sign players like Timo Werner, Nathan Aké, and Gabriel Magalhães, respectively, I can’t help but think that we are not doing enough.

It isn’t just the acquisition of players that Manchester United seem to have problems with. Offloading their deadwood is another issue that needs immediate attention. Manchester United do not need Marcus Rojo, Andreas Pereira, Jesse Lingard, and Phil Jones. There have been no efforts to sell any of these players or find potential new homes for them. Besides these players, do Manchester United need 4 first-team goalkeepers? It is time for either Sergio Romero or Lee Grant to be shipped out. As much as it pains me and probably most United fans, I’d rather sell Romero at this point. A player of his calibre should be starting matches, and a move to a mid-table Premier League team would do him a world of good.

Of course, Manchester United need enough players so that they can remain competitive in all 4 four fronts this campaign – the Premier League, League Cup, FA Cup, and the Champions League. However, to progress far and potentially win the competition, Manchester United need to bring in quality players for depth. When I looked at the line up against Villa, I was unimpressed with the backup options we had on the wings.

Ideally, Manchester United need to sign 4-5 more players. In another article, I ranked these positions in order and argued that we desperately need a right-winger. However, after some pondering (and a lecture from Jack), I’m more convinced now that we need to shore up our defence. Do we have enough firepower going forward? Well, barely. On the other hand, our defence is in desperate need for stability and we need to sort this out fast.

At the same time, I think decisions have to be made on James Garner and Diogo Dalot. I think a loan move would do well for both players. At this age, regular football would do them good, although it is almost guaranteed that they won’t find that at United. Garner has to compete with the likes of van de Beek, Fred, Mc Tominay, Pogba, and Matic for a chance to start in midfield, while Dalot appears to have fallen below Fosu-Mensah in the pecking order at right back. They can become fantastic footballers for United in the future, but for them to fulfill their potential, the club needs to orchestrate a loan move for them.

The de Gea vs Henderson dilemma

Seeing David de Gea start the match was quite intriguing, and like many other United fans, I’m clueless as to how Ole will appease both keepers with playing time. Will we see a situation where Dean Henderson plays in the Champions League and Cup games while de Gea starts in the Premier League? Maybe, vice-versa? Honestly, I’d rather Henderson start in the PL and de Gea start in the Champions League and Cup games instead. It is a gamble, but Henderson needs regular playing time at United to assimilate himself into the squad fully.

Or perhaps, Ole rotates the goalkeepers to give both players a chance to stake their claim as Manchester United’s number one. It will be interesting to see what transpires, but I hope that the competition between Henderson and de Gea keeps both players on their toes and that makes both of them better.

Plans to blood in current Academy players?

It was good to see Teden Mengi turn out for United once again, but I was even more excited to see Anthony Elanga come off the bench. I have been pretty excited about the current crop of Academy players at United. While I’d like to have seen Dylan Levitt play in some cup games, I am thrilled to see his development with Charlton Athletic after securing a season-long loan move to the League One side.

There is one player that I have been waiting eagerly to see make his debut for the first-team: Hannibal Mejbri. The French wonderkid moved to United in what is believed to be a €5 million move from AS Monaco in 2019, and I have been patiently waiting for him to make his debut. The opportunities handed to Mason Greenwood and Brandon Williams have assured me that Ole has faith in the United Academy. The recent purchases of several talented youth players have also indicated that Ole and the United hierarchy are serious about developing from within. The League Cup and FA Cup Matches could be good avenues for Ole to blood in young players. The Europa League proved to be an excellent platform for academy graduates to gain valuable first-team minutes. However, with the Red Devils now returning to the Champions League, can Ole afford to hand out as many first-team debuts and start academy players as frequently? I really doubt he will. We might see some cameos from promising players, but that is the extent of it truly.

The game against Palace this weekend will not completely answer some of the questions I have posted here. It may, however, provide us with some sense of the direction the club is heading towards for the 2020/21 season. Only time will tell if Henderson should start over de Gea or if we will see Mejbri feature in the first-team. One thing for sure though, the pressure will be on Ole and the Red Devils to perform better this season.

Donny van de Beek is a quality signing but is he a priority for United?

I have mixed feelings about Manchester United signing Donny van de Beek. Recently, BBC Sport reported that Manchester United have agreed to personal terms with the midfielder and have negotiated a £40 million move with Ajax. On paper, it represents a well-calculated move by Manchester United. Like Bruno Fernandes, United haven’t overpaid for the Dutch […]

My Response to Vikram’s Article About Donny van de Beek

He may not be an exact fit, but that does not make him a bad signing… Two days ago, Manchester United announced their first signing of the summer. Dutch midfielder Donny van de Beek joins the Red Devils from Ajax for an initial £35 million fee, not including add-ons. The 23 year old signed a […]

Has De Gea become a liability for Manchester United?

De Gea has been undroppable ever since he established himself as one of the Premier League’s top shot-stoppers. If there were any doubts, his heroics in the 18/19 EPL season, which saw him save 11 shots in the second half against Spurs, should cement his status as a goalkeeper of high calibre. The United hierarchy […]

Taking Youth Football to Another level – A chat with Habil Hakim

For Singapore footballing standards in Singapore to grow, we need to ensure that there are enough opportunities for youth players to develop. This is why football academies are essential. Given the limited number of professional Singapore Premier League clubs, and by extension, the limited number of Centre of Excellences (COEs), football academies play an instrumental role in developing our youth. These academies become institutions of formal learning for both sets of players, those who want to pursue a professional career or recreational players who want to get better.

In 2011, the F-17 football academy was launched to provide training programs tailored for male and female players across the various age groups. As one would expect from a school established by the Son of Singapore Football, the current coaching line-up is filled with a wealth of experienced personnel. Within their ranks, they have former S.league veterans, Syed Azmir, Fadhil Salim, Sevki Sha’ban and Abdul Rahman Hassan. Among them is a rising star in his own right, Habil Hakim bin Roslan. Habil is the current acting technical director with F-17. However, don’t get it wrong. Habil wasn’t handed the role on a silver platter – his story is one that exemplifies sheer hard work and determination.

I managed to speak to Habil a couple of months back (yes, I know, this is long overdue) and understanding the local football academy scene was a real eye-opener for me. 

Beginnings in Football

Habil Hakim played as a goalkeeper growing up. As a young boy, he played for Tampines Rovers Under-10s and rose through their youth levels till the under-17 level. At Tampines, Habil was coached by the late David Sivalingam, who had a massive influence on Habil. He was someone that Habil regularly saw during trainings and matches, and his guidance benefited Habil a lot.

Sivalingam was an excellent coach and it is hardly surprising that Habil looked up to him. The late coach did well with the NFA U-18 team that Harris Harun featured in and guided them to winning the Prime League in 2008. What’s remarkable is that the team were unbeaten that title-winning season. Sivalingam was managing the Youth Olympics Games team before suddenly and unfortunately passed away. Sivalingam may no longer be around, but he still influences Habil in many ways.

Besides growing up playing as a goalkeeper, Habil also grew up playing the game that most football fanatics love, Football Manager. Playing the game hours on end, he fell in love with the idea of management as an alternate pathway for his footballing career. Habil was an N-Level student who completed his NITEC and was doing his Higher NITEC in mechanical engineering when he decided to drop out. As soon as he turned 18, he embarked on this new journey of football coaching and management.

“I went to take my preliminary coaching license when I was 18 and everyone there (at the course) was telling me how young I was. I mean, I did it all for the game. (At the beginning), I got attached as an assistant coach with CDC programmes at ITE Balestier and I slowly gained confidence. Then, after that, I went to National Service.

“During my National Service, I was a high elements instructor and I was already dealing with NPCC kids. So even back then, I had some certifications working with youth and safety.”

After National Service, the job hunt began for Habil who was searching widely for a full-time coaching job. Soon, he found one at a place which he still treasures up to this day. It was here that he learned a lot of valuable skills and honed his coaching ability.

Image provided by Habil Hakim

Venturing into Academy Management

For the next 5 years, a Japanese Academy here in Singapore became home for Habil. This is where his journey into academy management and coaching truly started. However, the start was far from a bed of roses. Habil’s salary back then was a mere $1,000 before CPF and while most Singaporeans would be put off by such low pay, Habil seized the opportunity.

“The promise was you learn a lot for that (pay). I told myself, you know what, I’m just going to grab it. I’m fresh in this line of work and I really needed to learn a lot of things. When I spoke with my boss then, he told me that he would teach me things that other people would not and also about the academy business.”

The learning curve was steep. Habil was given a lot of tough love and he was always expected to give his best. After all, he was the only Singaporean then and was surrounded by other expat coaches from Japan as well as former Hougang United player, Robert Chinedu Eziakor (who’s currently a coach with the Cheetahs).  No local coaches have ever lasted that long with the academy, but it was through Habil’s perseverance that he not only managed to survive but also become a significantly better coach.

“It was tough. I remember my first meeting. As a rookie, I did not know what to expect or do. So, I went there without any materials or without dressing properly and my mentor would look at me and tell me to go back (home). He’d tell me to think (about why I was sent home). So the next meeting, I would come with some materials, like pens and some paper for note-taking, but I would not be well dressed. So my mentor would tell me it’s not good enough and told me to go back (home) again. Then, when I was finally prepared and dressed appropriately, he let me into the meeting.

“It was like a progression and this is the same for a lot of things with the academy. We have training plans that need to be vetted and if it weren’t up to the mark, my boss would either use a pen and cross out the entire training plan or crumple the paper and throw it away.”

When Habil’s training plans got routinely rejected by his mentor, he came up with three plans instead of one. In the event where his mentor rejected the first one, I had two more at the ready for vetting. That impressed his mentor a lot and Habil learned that his mentor was trying to instil a sense of professionalism in him. His boss was no bully. He just expected a lot and set high standards so that his coaches improve.

One other big takeaway for Habil was learning the fundamentals about the business side of running academies. His mentor taught Habil everything he needed to know on how to run youth tournaments. His mentor then challenged him to find sponsors for an upcoming tournament as a means for Habil to learn, something that he learned a lot from.

F-17

After 5 years, Habil moved on to greener pastures for a new challenge. F-17 came to him with a proposal and an offer. To Habil, it was the best feeling in the world because it was a testament to how far it had grown. Instead of applying for a job, his ability and efforts had merited him an offer that was too good to turn down.

Habil was blown away by the structure of the organization and the facilities at their disposal. However, he only accepted their offer on the condition that he was able to do things his way (or instead, the Japanese way he learned at his previous academy) because he felt that the kids at F-17 could be pushed more.

According to Habil, the training plan is the most crucial element for coaching to be successful. Previously, he has encountered many coaches who do not have any training plan and go into training with whatever is in their head. When he explained it to me, it made sense why a training plan is so important for the development of youth footballers.

“If you have a training plan, you start asking yourself questions like, ‘why is this training needed?’ It allows you to (determine) how much time you would want to spend on a certain drill and what coaching points you would want to give.”

From a coach’s point of view, this is something that had been lacking in the local scene. At F-17, coaches are expected to maintain a professional image, prepare training plans, teach values, and have open communications within the coaching team.

In 2017, Habil was promoted as the General Manager of F-17. In this role, he oversees the recruitment of coaches and acts as an intermediary between the directors and coaching team. Habil has always looked up to Johor Darul Ta’zim owner, Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim, as a role model in how he manages. The Crown Prince of Johor has revolutionized the Johor club and have made them into a real Asian powerhouse. Similarly, Habil wants F-17 to be a platform to revolutionize football in Singapore and improve the overall footballing standards.

Credits: Funroots International

Since becoming GM, F-17 has secured multiple partnerships with academies overseas. In 2018, F-17 managed to secure a partnership with David Villa’s DV7 Academy in Japan. F-17 players are sent over to Japan for training stints to improve their game but also coaches learn a lot from the different training methods ran by DV7. Besides the Japan link, links had been formed in academies in Spain and Thailand. Currently, F17 has also partnered up with Wolverhampton Wanderers where the coaches in Singapore learn from their counterparts in England through webinars.

Credits: Funroots International

Giving a Voice to Youth Football

One thing that impressed me was how Habil runs a video podcast series called Youth Football Talk, which runs on IGTV. In this series, he gives youth footballers a chance to tell their stories and share their experiences. As someone who tries to tell footballing stories myself, I do appreciate Habil’s commitment in this initiative. These are just a few of his episodes.

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Future Aspirations?

I had to ask Habil this question though: What about progressing his career into managing and coaching first-team squads? He responded with the following analogy.

“There are doctors who can treat everything, and there are specialists as well. Like the specialist doctors, I want to be a youth specialist. I want to stay in this youth category. Some have been asking me why I don’t manage the Under-23s or the adults, and I mean I could do that for leisure, but it really isn’t my main interest.”

One thing is for sure, though. There are bigger things in store for Habil’s future. Recently, Habil was approached by a football academy in Japan who were interested in signing him. The academy paid for his flight and hotel and flew him to Japan for a 3-day trip to discuss a potential move. However, Covid-19 might have put a hold on Habil’s aspirations, but his future is a bright one.

I think Habil Hakim’s story shows that hard work and resilience pays off. Yes, opportunities are important but Hakim, in all honesty, is a self-made man. He started with literally nothing, and he really made the best of the opportunities that he received. This interview also gave me hope for the future of Singaporean football. Some may ridicule Project 2034, Edwin Tong’s ambitious plan for Singapore to reach the 2034 World Cup Finals, but if there were more coaches like Habil Hakim out there, it is not an impossible target. We need to work on the current generation of youth footballers to improve our footballing future.

I also am a big fan of Singaporean players and coaches venturing overseas to further their game. Players and coaches can’t expect to get better if they stay in Singapore. Moving overseas to hone their craft is necessary for development. On that note, I do sincerely hope that Habil does go to Japan and takes his coaching game to another level.

Featured Image by Habil Hakim.

P.S Shout out to our reader Mhod Mahsum for helping us reach out!

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Why the Singapore Premier League should adopt a Franchise mode

While the national team has been relatively weak in recent years, Singaporeans are very much still football-crazy. From diligently watching Premier League matches to playing Futsal with their friends, football is not just a way of life for many Singaporeans, but it is almost a religion. Growing up, I would often bond with my friends […]

Donny van de Beek is a quality signing but is he a priority for United?

I have mixed feelings about Manchester United signing Donny van de Beek. Recently, BBC Sport reported that Manchester United have agreed to personal terms with the midfielder and have negotiated a £40 million move with Ajax. On paper, it represents a well-calculated move by Manchester United. Like Bruno Fernandes, United haven’t overpaid for the Dutch international, who has been brilliant for Ajax last campaign. Van de Beek scored 10 goals and made 11 assists across all competitions last season and can play as a central, attacking, or defensive midfielder. On paper, he is a quality player who can play in the Premier League.

Yet, I can’t help but feel like he will be misused at United. Don’t get me wrong, I think van de Beek can excel in United’s set up if he is played correctly – a free-roaming central midfielder. Why does that sound familiar, you might wonder? Well, that’s cause Pogba currently plays in that role for United in a midfield set up where Bruno is an attacking midfielder and Matić plays as a defensive midfielder that sits back.

This raises an important issue for United: what do they do with their new acquisition? Where does he play?

One thing is for sure – Donny offers United depth because he can slot in and fulfill either Bruno’s or Pogba’s role. While Fred is a good player, he struggles in Pogba’s position, and van de Beek offers something different in that regard. Similarly, Manchester United do not have a proper back up to Bruno. Jesse Lingard, Andreas Pereira and Juan Mata pale in comparison to Bruno, but the Dutchman has shown a lot of promise in that central attacking midfielder role at Ajax. Hence, van de Beek is an excellent signing in this regard – someone who is brought in to provide cover for both Pogba and Bruno.

However, I have two main issues with this transfer. Firstly, it is highly likely that Ole might field a midfield trio of Bruno-Pogba-van De Beek, with the Dutchman sitting behind the other two. Secondly, van de Beek is not a priority signing given the issues in other areas in the squad. Allow me to go through both points.

Donny van de Beek is not the defensive midfielder that Manchester United needs.

If he is brought in to play as a defensive midfielder mainly, then United are not only under-utilizing the player but also will suffer in big matches. Yes, van de Beek can be deployed as a defensive midfielder, and he can do a decent job in that position, but to harness his full capability, he needs to play higher up in the field. Even if he does play as a defensive midfielder, I am doubtful that the player can sit back and ensure that the defensive line is covered. After enjoying the freedom to roam and express himself at Ajax, van de Beek would probably need a lot of time to adapt to a Fabinho-type role that Manchester United need for Ole’s system to work properly.

It is bewildering because there are other options out there. Wilfred Ndidi would have been the perfect signing for the Red Devils. Also 23 years old like van de Beek, he has the potential to become a main fixture in United for the next decade. Sure, United will have to fork out a fortune to purchase a promising player from a rival Premier League club (I mean we paid £80 million for Harry Maguire, so yes, Ndidi won’t be cheap). However, I believe he would be a worthy investment, and the massive fee paid would pay dividends because he is a significant upgrade from Nemanja Matić, who is the best player suited to that defensive midfield role under Ole’s tactics. Let that sink in a bit, Matić is 32 years old and past his prime. Yes, he has experienced a revival in form at the start of the year, but the aging Serbian cannot be starting every single game.

The thing is, given his playing style, I do not know if van de Beek would do a significantly better job than Matic. Maybe he could? I do not know. It’s times like these when I kind of regret selling Daley Blind. No, I am not joking. Blind has shown his defensive prowess at Ajax and has established himself as a solid centre-back but is also capable of executing long-range passes. Wilfred Ndidi may not possess the same calibre of passing, but I’d argue that he defends better than Blind, and by extension van de Beek, in that defensive midfield position. Manchester United are in dire need of this defending ability.

Not the Red Devils’ Priority

Secondly, while van de Beek is a fine addition, he isn’t a priority for United right now. Let me list our priorities in the order of what we need.

  1. A Right-winger
  2. A Centre-back
  3. A Left-back
  4. A Defensive Midfielder (that fits Ole’s tactics)
  5. Quality Depth in midfield [This is what the van de Beek signing accomplishes]
  6. A Forward (to replace Ighalo once his loan expires)

What we need now, more than ever, is a right winger. Yes, we also need a centre-back, a left-back, and a defensive midfielder are important but relatively less so. Daniel James is our only natural right winger Daniel James is not good enough to start every match, and I do believe a loan to another Premier League club would do him a world of good. Jadon Sancho should have been our priority signing, but it looks like we are going to miss out on him. There have been rumours circulating that united may pursue Kingsley Coman and Ousmane Dembélé. However, there have been no concrete developments just yet.

I’m afraid I have to disagree with the notion that United do not need to invest in a world-class right-winger because they already have options within their academy prospects. Yes, Tahith Chong played brilliantly in his first few friendly matches for Werder Bremen, providing an assist in his debut scoring an impressive solo goal against FC Groningen in his third match. However, he still needs time to develop. The same goes for Mason Greenwood, who even though has played well in that right-wing role, would probably fare better up front. The same goes for the other positions and United need to reinforce the squad before the start of the season.

Donny van de Beek is by no means a bad signing, and I am thrilled that Manchester United have finally made a transfer, especially since other clubs have already secured multiple targets. What I am fearful of is Manchester United misusing the Dutchman or, even worse, not signing anyone else. The club has done well so far in securing hot prospects for the United Academy and Reserves. They need to replicate this success of acquiring talented youth players for the first-team setup. I sincerely hope that van de Beek’s acquisition will open the flood gates and United go on to secure other priority targets. Only time will tell. Ed Woodward please, I beg you, do not screw this up…

Featured Image by Image by bertholdbrodersen from Pixabay

Meet Gavin Lee, Singapore’s Brightest Coaching Prospect – Part 2: Takeaways thus far as Head Coach

In Part 1, I looked at Gavin’s journey to coaching in top flight football. In Part 2, I look at Gavin’s first full year as Tampines Rovers head coach and some of the things he has learned and experienced.

Takeaways from His First Year

There was a lot of buzz when Gavin got appointed as the Tampines Rovers head coach in 2019. People who knew Gavin were very excited and supportive about the decision. Here, there was an up and coming young football coach who had his own ideas. However, there were also people, who didn’t know Gavin, that were skeptical about the move. They wondered whether Gavin could manage a team that had several players who were older than him.

Even though Tampines failed to win the league in 2019, it’s safe to say that the club has progressed a lot under Gavin’s stewardship. In 2018, Gavin had been assistant coach to Jürgen Raab. Under the former East German international, the club finished 4th in the league, finished bottom of their AFC Cup group and were knocked out by Home United in the quarter-finals of the Singapore Cup.

By contrast, as I mentioned earlier in the article, Gavin steered the Stags to a second-place finish in the SPL, won the Singapore Cup and came second in their AFC Cup group, narrowly missing out on qualification from the Group Stages in the AFC Cup by goal difference. Gavin has a plan for the Stags and it has been working thus far.

One thing that Gavin realized quite quickly as Tampines Rovers’ head coach is that even though he was working with adults, grown men, his players were still boys at heart.

“All they want to do is enjoy training; enjoy football just like the JSSL players I worked with. People often forget that even though they are adults, they want to enjoy football. My message to the team from day 1 has been that I want [my players] to be looking forward to training. I do not want my players to be dragging their feet to training and seeing it as work. We are all so privileged to be working in football and being paid to do what we love. If we do not enjoy what we do, it is going to be a problem. I know sitting on the bench is not going to be enjoyable. I understand that, but at the very least, when it comes to training, players need to enjoy being on the pitch.”

Gavin also gave me insights on how the recruitment process happens behind the scenes. Being the head coach, he will highlight certain areas that need reinforcement and, together with his technical team (Desmond Ong, Mustafic Fahrudin and William Phang) source for players. Of course, to play for a club like Tampines, a player is expected to be of a certain caliber. However, for Gavin, he pays particular attention to the character of the player, which he believes is “as important if not more important than the technical ability of a player.”

Photo Credits: Tampines Rovers FC

That being said, Gavin counts himself lucky to be working with a host of national team players before turning thirty years old. Daniel Bennet, Madhu Mohana, Irwan Shah, Yasir Hanapi, Baihaiki Khaizan, Khairul Amri, Hassan Sunny and Ammirul Adli are just some of the names that he has worked with.

However, he conceded that planning ahead can be a challenge in the Singapore Premier League, and that is because of the league’s unpredictability. I agree with him. No one saw it coming when the FAS asked Warriors FC, the 7-time S.League champions and most successful team in Singaporean football, to sit out of the current 2020 campaign due to the club’s financial issues. One problem that Gavin has navigated around is the issue of transfers, where the Tampines head coach has promoted a number of players from the club’s Prime League squad.

“We do want to think ahead and as much as we can see ahead, we will plan for it. However, when it comes to the unpredictability of Singapore football, it is tough. [At the same time,] I think we have shown that we are serious about bringing young players in like [Ammirul] Adli, Irfan Najeeb, Shah Shahiran, and Joel Chew. If they are good enough, they are old enough.”

“At the same time, I’ve been saying this to reporters a lot since Baihakki joined us, if you’re good enough, you’re young enough as well. I think once they introduced the under-23 rule, it forced a number of senior players out of the door. If you’re good enough, you’re old enough. If you’re good enough, you’re young enough. It works both ways. You can’t be telling me that someone like Bai, who is good enough for Thai League 1, is too old for Singapore football. I do not buy that. If Daniel Bennet is good enough to play in the SPL, it is not Daniel Bennet’s fault [that he is 42 years old.]”

The importance of management and bringing in a culture to the club is another takeaway for Gavin.

“I hate this term, control. In football in general, you hear this term a lot; controlling players; managing players. I don’t see it that way. I see it as working together with players. It stems back to JSSL where I was given an opportunity to be the director of coaching and general manager quite young. [I was] Working with people older than me so I had to learn how to work with them. You can’t force things on people, you can only convince or influence them. Those skills were useful coming to Tampines.”

Thankfully, Gavin reveals that the older players knew what he was trying to accomplish at the club and threw their weight behind him. After Gavin managed to win over the core group of Tampines players, the rest of the squad followed suit.

Photo Credits: Tampines Rovers FC

“People think I have the most problems with the senior players; that they are the ones who will give me the most problems. They are the players who I have least problems with. To be honest, I have no problems with the senior players. They are the most professional because they get what I’m doing and they’ve got to where they are today because of their professionalism. It’s the younger players that need an education because they can be naive at times, but who better to guide them than the senior players.”

One message that Gavin and the Tampines team tell their young players is to use Tampines as a platform to go abroad. Honestly speaking, a player would probably reach a plateau and stagnate if he plays in Singapore for an extended period of time. It is important for players to move abroad so that they take their game to the next level. Gavin can tell this to his players easily because that is the same message sent to him by the Chairman. However, that doesn’t mean that Gavin has any concrete plans for the future just yet. Although, Gavin does have ambitions, and one of them is to coach a club in the Champions League, something that he has made public about.

“As a coach, the highest possible level is probably the Champions League and I really want to compete in the Champions League. What form that takes, I don’t know. I am not Pep Guardiola or Carlo Ancelotti where I can have my pick of clubs. I am not there yet. It’s why I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the future because I want to be focusing on the present. I need to get now sorted, if I don’t do that I won’t have a future. Well, I would have a future but it is a poorer one. It is something I tell my players, to focus on the now.”

Gavin has also gotten a clearer understanding of how Singapore football works. The various processes, the strengths and weaknesses of the current system in place, as well as the financing are just some of the things that Gavin has come to grips with after his first full year as Tampines Rovers head coach. As a result, he believes that people who criticize local football really don’t understand what goes on behind the scenes, which is true. Many of us (myself included) can lament about the state of Singaporean football, but without an understanding what issues linger in the local footballing framework, we are not really helping by complaining, are we?

Relishing AFC Football

While the Singapore Premier League is the main focus for the club, Gavin won’t hide the fact that he thoroughly enjoys the AFC Cup, primarily because of the higher level of competition. Take last year for example, the Stags were grouped together with Hanoi FC (champions of Vietnam), Yangon United (champions of Myanmar), and Nagaworld (champions of Cambodia). That campaign was a memorable one for Gavin, whose side came in second and only failed to progress due to goal difference.

“Last year we won 4 games, drew 1 and lost 1. We lost the game to Hanoi and I think people forget how good Hanoi are. Hanoi are potentially one of the best teams in Southeast Asia. So, they’re on the level of JDT. They have such a good team and the football they play is very good as well. I told the team last season that there would be one or two games where we’d concede a little more possession than we’d like and that’s against Hanoi.”

Gavin wasn’t wrong. The Stags won all their other matches but drew their first match against Hanoi at home, 1-1, and lost 2-0 away. Losing out on goal difference was probably rough, but Gavin and his team could hold their heads up high.

People probably think that the 4-3 thriller during the Singapore Cup Final was the most memorable for the Tampines head coach, but it was the Stags’ first AFC Cup match against Yangon that stood out for Gavin. I guess it comes as no surprise since it was Gavin’s first competitive fixture with the club (the AFC Cup/Champions League starts before the commencement of the SPL). What a start it was, though. Tampines cruised past Yangon 3-1 in what I’d call a dream start for any debuting coach.

The Stags have started strong this term in the AFC Cup as well and are still unbeaten in the group stages. The tournament will resume in October and hopefully, Tampines can go far this time round.

Coping with Covid-19

The global pandemic has brought football to a halt in Singapore. There are serious doubts as to whether the Singapore Premier League will continue. As things stand, training sessions have resumed but are limited to groups of 5 per session. While maybe not the most conducive way to train for football, Gavin would take this any day over zoom sessions. It has been a challenge to train during the pandemic, but Gavin and Tampines are doing whatever within their means to make the most out of the situation at hand. What worries the Tampines head coach more is an intensification of the infection.

“My biggest concern for this pandemic is a re-occurrence of it. The health and safety of everyone is so important, and the last thing we want is to go into lockdown (again). So, I trust the authorities and the medical experts making the decisions, but you see other countries having a second wave and the ripple effect of that is terrifying. It’s not just about football. Football is the last thing when it comes to these situations. Health and your livelihood is the most important.”

Photo Credits: Tampines Rovers FC​

I had this interview with Gavin sometime in mid-July. While it’s been more than a month and with cases dwindling down, there has been no word from the FAS on the resumption of the SPL. I do hope that things get better and that we see professional football return.

To end off, let me say this. I did not know what I was getting myself into before I interviewed Gavin. Here before me was the head coach of one of Singapore’s biggest professional football clubs. After interviewing him I can say that you won’t find many people as passionate about football and the local game as Gavin Lee. He is a charismatic and inspirational figure who goes the extra mile to achieve his goals. I’m not kidding, even during his “free time,” Gavin reads about football, analyzes fixtures, and watches documentaries all in a bid to further his own coaching ability. He is the ideal role model for anyone who wants to turn football into a career, and it was a pleasure to interview him.

Featured Image Credits: Tampines Rovers FC

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The K-League is the new top destination for ASEAN footballers

Starting this season, the K-League has added an extra foreign player slot for players from ASEAN football federation members. Yes, that means that players from Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Timor-Leste, Cambodia, Laos, Brunei, and Myanmar could potentially feature in the K-League seasons to come. However, and mostly because of the coronavirus pandemic restricting travel, there are no Southeast Asian footballers playing in the league this season. However, I am sure that, in due time, and as travel restrictions ease off, we will see Southeast Asians ply their trade in Korea.

The decision to open up an ASEAN slot got me thinking about the merits of such a move. What I can tell you is that I welcome this initiative by the South Korean professional football league, and it is a move that benefits all parties.

Southeast Asian Footballers in East Asia

There are Southeast Asian players who have played in South Korea before, but these players are but a handful. Here’s a list of players who have played in the Korean top flight thus far:

  • Nguyễn Công Phượng (CAM, ST), Incheon United, 2019.
  • Lương Xuân Trường (CM, DM), Incheon United (2016), Gangwon FC, 2017.
  • Álvaro Silva (CB), Daejeon Citizen, 2015.
  • Piyapong Pue-on (ST), Lucky-Goldstar Football Club (FC Seoul), 1984-86.
  • Rodrigo Souza Silva (CAM), Daegu FC, 2017.

I wasn’t kidding. Only 5 players from ASEAN nations have played in the Korean top flight. If you include the 2 East Timor players that played in the K-League 2, that’s a total of 7 ASEAN players who have played in Korea. By contrast, 33 Southeast Asians have played in Japan with 6 players currently playing in the league. Of course, it is important to note that starting from the 2017 season, players from J.League partner nations (Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, Singapore, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, and Qatar) are exempt from foreign player-related club registration and match day fielding eligibility.

So why is it beneficial for all parties? Quite simply it is…

A New Platform for ASEAN Players and A New Market for K-League

It would be safe to say that most ASEAN players would dream of moving abroad. However, there are limited overseas options for ASEAN footballers who want to take their game to the next level. Usually, work permit issues tend to be a problem for players to move to Europe. However, in recent years, more Southeast Asian footballers are looking towards the J.League as the pinnacle they need to reach. The J.League is an extremely competitive league, and a number of European heavyweights ply their trade there right now. Barcelona icon Iniesta still plays for Vissel Kobe. Besides that, Japan is a traditional Asian powerhouse.

Traditionally, the other strong Asian footballing state has always been South Korea. You could challenge me on this, but the statistics do not lie. K-League clubs have won the Asian Club Championship and AFC Champions league a record 11 times and have come as runners up in the competition 6 times.

ASEAN footballers can take their game to the next level with the K-League and they should grasp the opportunity to do so. Southeast Asian national teams would relish the opportunity for their biggest talents to bring their game to the next level. Korea is a perfect destination for that to happen.

Like every competitive league, it is beyond time for the K-League to grow its market. Like the J.League, it offers fans top-notch action. However, where the K-League falls behind the J.League is in having well-known foreign footballers. This is why the ASEAN quota will come in handy because it circumvents the issue of having wold-renowned footballers within their ranks. There are many talented Southeast Asian footballers with massive fan bases in the region.

Just how big is Southeast Asia?

Well there are approximately 669,487,902 Southeast Asians as of 2020. That is a massive market to tap onto. Obviously not all 669,487,902 people are football fans, and most who do follow their local footballing scenes will probably root for their fellow compatriots. Even then, the market is really huge.

So who should K-League clubs eye in Southeast Asia?

I guess a good question would be to ask who would be ideal signings for K-League clubs. There are a many players who can play in the K-League. These are just some players I’d personally want to see ply their trade in South Korea.

Stefano Lilipaly

  • Nationality: Indonesian/Dutch
  • Position: Right Winger
  • Current Club: Bali United

With over 1 million followers on Instagram, Stefano Lilipaly makes the ideal signing for any K-League club. He is a quality player who also brings about increased brand exposure. The right winger is currently playing for Bali United but has featured prominently in the Dutch Eerste Divisie, appearing for Almere City, FC Utrecht, SC Telstar, and SC Cambuur. He also turned out for J.League side Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo, making a singular appearance for them in the Emperor’s Cup. I think a move to Korea would allow the Indonesian international to have a second crack at football in East Asia. For whatever reason, he never featured in the league with Consadole Sapporo, and a move to a K-League club would allow him to redeem himself. 6 years have passed since that failed stint in Japan and Lilipaly has developed into an Indonesian icon and is a valuable acquisition indeed.

Safawi Rasid

  • Nationality: Malaysian
  • Position: Right Winger
  • Current Club: JDT

Be warned, the right winger has a lethal left foot and if he cuts inside the right wing, it would most likely end up as a goal. Just how lethal is he? Take a look at this highlight reel here. On top of that, he is a free-kick specialist, a valuable addition for any team. Personally, I think Rasid has outgrown JDT, and it is time for him to bring his game to the next level. Then again, I could understand why a permanent move away from Johor might not be in the winger’s favour. JDT’s project of becoming a real contender in Asia will probably entice the player to stay. After all, who wouldn’t want to be part of such a magnificent opportunity to make the Malaysian titans an Asian powerhouse. Perhaps a loan move to a K-League club makes sense so that the Malaysian can benefit from higher levels of competition at a regular level. A loan stint is ideal since it gives the K-League club exposure in Malaysia and allows the winger to return to Johor a potentially better player.

Harris Harun

  • Nationality: Singaporean
  • Position: Central Midfielder, Defensive Midfielder
  • Current Club: JDT

At 29 years old, Harris has accomplished a lot. Most of these accomplishments have come during his time with JDT. Since arriving in 2014, the tenacious midfielder has gone on to win the Malaysia Super League every season, the FA Cup in 2016, and the Malaysia Cup in 2019 with the Southern Tigers. However, the highlight of his tenure has to be winning the AFC Cup in 2015 and becoming the first Singaporean to do so. Harris also has been playing regularly in the Asian Champions League, which is important for any K-League club because he has proven that he can play against Asia’s elite. Besides being able to play as a centre-back, the current Singapore and JDT captain is also a natural born leader, and that is something that would be of added value. Even though many Singaporean fans are apathetic about local football, Singaporeans would throw their weight behind Harris if he secures a transfer to the K-League.

Aung Thu

  • Nationality: Burmese
  • Position: Second Striker, Attacking Midfielder
  • Current Club: Yadanarbon Football Club

Kyaw Ko Ko is the pride of Myanmar and the star striker of the nation. However, it is Aung Thu who I believe is better suited for the K-League. His pace, dribbling ability, clinical finishing and his ability to pick out his team mates in the final third have led some to label him as the “Messi of Myanmar.” While he can play in multiple positions, he is best suited as a second striker or an attacking midfielder, where he can assist his team mates or bang in the goals. Yes, some of you may disagree with my assessment that Aung Thu is good enough for the K-League and I agree, Aung Thu still needs to work to develop into the finished product. However, I urge you to look at his 2018 season when he was on loan at BEC Police Tero. In a season that saw the Thai top flight club get relegated, Aung Thu was the third-highest scorer with 11 goals and the second-highest provider of assists with 8. However, he needs to play as an attacking midfielder for him to shine. Last season, Aung Thu was often played out at the wing, which hampered his ability to influence the game as much. In 11 league matches, he only scored 2 goals. I believe that Aung Thu will be a valuable trump card for K league sides.

The players I mentioned above are by no means the only players that could play in the K-League. The list could go on to include a slew of players currently playing in Southeast Asia, such as Safuwan Baharudin and Nguyen Quang Hai, and that’s not to mention the Thai stalwarts playing the J.League like Teerasil Dangda. I am excited to see how other developments take place, specifically a chain reaction where more Southeast Asian players will climb up the rungs of the footballing ladder.

Allow me to clarify; there is a clear football hierarchy within Southeast Asia, where the ultimate goal is to play in the East Asian leagues (K League, Chinese Super League and J.League) and the A-League. One level below that is what I’d consider to be the premier ASEAN leagues, the Thai League 1 and the V.League 1. Slightly below that rung is the Malaysian Super League, followed by the Indonesian Liga 1. Under that rung, I’d classify all the various Southeast Asian leagues. This is the ladder I’m talking about. Now, if the best Southeast Asian footballers start playing in the K-League instead, there are spaces freed up for other Southeast Asian players to come and occupy, and yes, there will be a chain reaction, because most of these leagues have an ASEAN player slot so clubs will most certainly acquire new Southeast Asian players from the lower rungs of the footballing ladder. I can’t wait for that happen, because new opportunities will open up and new stars will be born.

Featured Image by Reimund Bertrams from Pixabay

Meet Gavin Lee, Singapore’s Brightest Coaching Prospect – Part 1: The Journey to Topflight Football

Even though Singapore has a professional football league with seven local professional clubs, the pool of players is small. There are many reasons for this, and one of them is the fact that most parents discourage their children from pursuing a professional career in sports. While many parents may be supportive of their children taking up sports as a serious hobby or ad hoc activity, they would rather their kids spend their time focusing on their academics. Getting a bachelor’s degree is usually seen as of paramount importance. However, to juggle one’s undergraduate studies and their sporting development is a monumental task. Hence, many often give up football altogether when they decide to pursue higher education in their late teens and early 20s.

Of course, as with everything, there are exceptions. One such exception has to be Anders Aplin, who I interviewed sometime in May. The current Hougang United defender played for Geylang International during his last year in Nanyang Technological University and labelled how challenging that year was. One other person who knows this struggle of balancing academics and sports all too well is Gavin Lee, the current head coach of Tampines Rovers. The 28-year-old studied in NTU while coaching at JSSL full-time.

However, Gavin isn’t just a role model because he managed to fulfil “societal expectations” of obtaining a degree and at the same time pursuing a career in sports. He is a role model because, through his sheer hard work and resilience, he has overcome many barriers and went on to become the head coach of his boyhood club, Tampines Rovers, at the tender age of 28. However, don’t let his age fool you. In his debut season last year, Gavin managed to guide the Stags to a second-place finish in the Singapore Premier League (SPL). A truly impressive start for any coach.

I managed to interview Gavin sometime last month, and it was an enjoyable interaction. It was really easy to talk to Gavin. So easy that the interview often digressed to other footballing topics, and then it became a heart-warming conversation where we discussed everything under the sun. I won’t lie. I had a lot of fun in this interview, and it’s possibly top of the list for now.

In Part 1 of this interview, I take a look at Gavin’s journey before becoming Tampines Rovers head coach in 2019.

Beginnings in Football

Like many footballers, Gavin started off wanting to become a footballer from a young age. He grew up in Tampines and naturally fell in love with Tampines Rovers. Gavin studied at Tampines Primary, where a number of his then school mates make up the current national team. One schoolmate included Safirul Sulaiman, who Gavin now coaches at Tampines. He also played for the Tampines Rovers under-10 and then under-12 teams before moving onto the NFA set up. At NFA, he was coached by former Singapore stalwart Kadir Yahaya. At NFA, Gavin played in the same team as Harris Harun, Izwan Mahbud, Hafiz Sujad, and Gabriel Quak. While these players went on to forge successful professional careers as footballers, Gavin believed that his calling in football was to become a head coach instead.

“If I was going to do something, I wanted to be the best at it. I think I was an above-average player in terms of abilities but I knew I was never going to be as good as some of these players. At a younger age, I have already gotten exposure to coaching. My dad was, well still is, a coach and I remember I used to follow him around and help him out with coaching younger kids during my teenage years.

Photo Credits: Gavin Lee

“Subconsciously, I think that rubbed off on me because I’ve always seen my dad as a role model. [My dad] showed me his passion for coaching and Kadir Yahaya came along and showed me what coaching was. So, when I got a little more serious about coaching, I think things just picked off from there.

“I find a lot of you when I’m coaching other people. When you’re playing the game, you are more focused on your own contributions to the team so it can succeed. As a coach, you’re dealing with 25 other human beings and pulling them together in the same direction is not easy. I mean, it is never easy.”

Coping with Academics and Coaching

After finishing his Primary School Leaving Examinations, Gavin went to Pasir Ris Secondary School, where he met Yasir Hanapi, who was one year his senior. However, he would only spend a year there before transferring over to Victoria School in secondary 2, where he played for the school team. When he was secondary 4, Gavin decided that he was going to apply for Victoria Junior College through the Direct School Admission Exercise, citing that he was “never academically bright enough to get in.” After his A levels, like every Singaporean son, Gavin entered national service, and his coaching career reached a standstill. Gavin was never the most enthusiastic serviceman, but he got his job done and after his ORD went to work part-time as a coach with JSSL. However, while his parents supported his aspirations of becoming a football coach, they still (like most Singaporean parents) expect their children to obtain at least a bachelors degree.

“You know, I come from a Singapore family, you need to get the paper [qualifications]. Me trying to be the filial son, I had to try to get that degree. My parents, coming from that generation, always emphasized getting that degree because they didn’t necessarily have that opportunity. So, I had to kill two birds with one stone (getting a degree and progressing as a coach). I didn’t want to do a business degree or any random degree. I looked at my options and asked myself what can help me, so I saw sports science and I knew this could help me.”

Gavin pursued his degree in Sports Science at Nanyang Technological University for 4 years, which Gavin found especially beneficial. Besides refining his logical thinking, his time at University improved his critical analysis, ability to source for new information, and, most importantly, how to conduct research. By his second year at NTU, Gavin was working full time at JSSL. However, work commitments meant that he had little time and opportunity to socialize with his Sports Science cohorts nor participate in any hall activities.

Juggling academics and football is never an easy task, and I wanted to dive deeper into the topic and ask how Gavin managed his time. Gavin concedes that he struggled to balance school and football initially when he was younger during his time in secondary school. He left the NFA when he was in Secondary 4 because he believed that he couldn’t cope with the demands of training and adequately prepare for his GCE ‘O’ Level Examinations. Since he came from a reputable school, there was also a lot of expectations for Gavin to do well.

“When I was secondary 3 at Victoria School, I was in one of the better classes. I was in class 3D and I remember one of the HODs came in and said the school is expecting thirty 6-pointers from my class. I looked around and told myself, well I’m not going to be one of them. I had 6 to 7 scholars in my class. In hindsight, it was a good thing because it challenged me to focus on my academics. Maybe that’s why I thought I couldn’t manage both that and football (at the time).”

First Foray into coaching in the professional scene

In 2014, while balancing his work with JSSL and his academic responsibilities with NTU, Gavin was handed a fantastic opportunity to enter professional coaching by Alex Weaver. JSSL’s founder and managing director Harvey Davis allowed Gavin to take some time off so that he could work alongside Weaver at Warriors FC (my favourite club). The additional commitment of working with Warriors meant that his already long days became even longer, but despite that, Gavin learned a ton under Weaver’s guidance.

Photo Credits: Gavin Lee

“Alex opened the door and showed me a whole new world into coaching. I think that was important because, at the time, I knew there was more when it came to coaching but I didn’t know how to get there. So Alex came in and gave me a signpost saying ‘go here.’ Things just grew from there.”

Gavin spent close to 2 seasons with Warriors, and during his stint with the club, Weaver wanted Gavin to come on board in a more official capacity. However, the Warriors management did not see the value in Gavin then and did not want to hire an unproven manager. It would be more apt to call his time at Warriors an invaluable stint. The club did not pay Gavin, but the absence of a salary did not matter to him. He knew it would be incredibly difficult for him to get such an incredible experience again. Weaver did “pay” the player with drinks from Starbucks and food from Pastamania. These small gestures by Weaver meant a lot to Gavin, and their bond strengthened as they continued to work together at Warriors.

Gavin is still in contact with the former Warriors head coach, and they are still very close today. Weaver is now a football periodization coach at FC Basel’s Academy, yet the pair still make it a point to FaceTime every week. Gavin has visited Weaver several times in Switzerland and has stayed over at his family’s house. He has also stayed over with Weaver’s parents in Stoke, and Gavin is forever grateful for what the Weavers (Alex and his family) have done for and continue to do for him.

At JSSL, Gavin coached the son of the Tampines Rovers’ chairman Desmond Ong and became acquainted with him through that. Interestingly, Gavin’s father coached the son before Gavin coached him. Back then, Desmond was just a lawyer at Raffles Place. However, he approached Gavin to coach the Tampines Rovers Under-19 team and become assistant to then-head coach Jürgen Raab. Fortunately, he reached an agreement where he could work for both JSSL and Tampines Rovers. By doing so, he had the best of both worlds. How so? Well, Gavin had a step into professional football with Tampines Rovers while he remained coaching some of the best youth players in Singapore with JSSL.

Harvey Davis has been an important figure in Gavin’s career. The JSSL managing director has always recognized that it has been Gavin’s dream to become a head coach one day and has always fully supported his career. However, Gavin did not want to leave JSSL entirely. Yes, the academy needed someone else to help fill some of his responsibilities, but Gavin had invested so much of his time in JSSL that he could not simply walk away from it altogether.

Photo credits: Gavin Lee

“I had put in so much blood sweat and tears into JSSL with Harvey and we’ve developed it into a proper organization. The last thing you want to do is to leave the place in a worst state than when you [first] came on board. But, Harvey was extremely supportive for me to go across [into professional coaching full time] and I guess I never looked back when the opportunity came.”

One big factor that influenced Gavin’s decision to take up the Tampines job was the Stags’ chairman. As ambitious as Gavin is, he needs to partake in something sustainable. He did not want the appointment to be a gimmick – a one-season wonder kind of deal. Thankfully, the board knew Gavin well and were sold by his philosophy and process. While that may be, it also meant that Gavin needed to deliver results on the pitch and show the board that they were right in placing their trust in him.

In part 2, I look into the next chapter of Gavin’s career, his first full season as head coach of Tampines Rovers and see what plans he has in the future.

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