Tag Archives: Chinese super league

One Last Hurrah!: Young Lions Shouldn’t Be Scrapped (Just Yet)

Where do I begin with the Young Lions? The club was formed in 2003 to provide some of the most talented Under-23 footballers with regular professional footballing experience. Besides having the chance to play together on a regular basis and maintaining team cohesion, the Young Lions project provided these players the opportunity to play against senior footballers and national team stalwarts. It was created with the primary goal of helping the national Under-23 team perform well in regional international tournaments like the SEA Games. However, the project has largely been a failure.

Jose Raymond recently wrote an article titled OPINION: Time to scrap the Young Lions, and truth be told, he makes excellent points. The Young Lions have not performed well in the SEA Games. That is in fact an understatement – their showings have been significantly poor. The national under-23 team “has not made the finals of the SEA Games final at all, and have been knocked out at the group stages in 2003, 2005, 2011, 2015, 2017 and 2019.”

I agree mostly with Mr. Raymond, but his article also got me thinking about ways we can salvage the current Young Lions side. Let’s be honest, it seems like that the Young Lions project would most likely continue. The FAS has invested too much in the project to let it go to waste. Instead of scrapping it, how then do we save this sinking ship? How do we materialize the FAS’s vision of the Young Lions becoming a platform for developing elite footballers for Singapore?

We first need to find out what issues exist, and there are two glaring problems that have plagued the club for a long time now – finding the perfect head coach for the club and improving the overall quality of youth players in Singapore. I think improving the quality of youth players in Singapore merits a separate article altogether. The Young Lions have not really had a brilliant coach that specializes in youth development and who also is really familiar with Singaporean football. For some reason, I couldn’t find a complete list of coaches who helmed the project. So I did a bit of archival research work. These are some of the Young Lions coaches:

List of Some Young Lions Coaches
No.Coach Years
1P N Sivaji2003
2Kim Poulsen2004
3Fandi Ahmad2005-2006
4V. Sundramoorthy2007-2010
5Robin Chitrakar2011-2012
6Aide Iskandar 2013-15
7Jürgen Raab2015
8Richard Tardy2016 (caretaker)
9Patrick Hesse2016-2017
10V. Selvaraj2017
11Richard Tardy2017 (caretaker)
12Vincent Subramaniam2017
13Fandi Ahmad2018-2019
14Nazir Nasir2020 – present
If there is any inaccurate information – do let me know

That being said, out of the lot, Fandi Ahmad and Kim Poulsen are arguably the most successful. Under Poulsen and then Fandi, the club finished 3rd in the 2004 and 2006 seasons respectively. These 3rd-place finishes are their highest ever finish to date. Other managers have been less successful, and, more often than not, the Young Lions find themselves at the bottom of the league. So, who would be the right candidate?

Gavin Lee could be a good fit for the Young Lions given his ability to bring the best out of youth players at Tampines Rovers. His youth-centric policy has turned Tampines Rovers into the Singaporean Ajax of sorts. However, just like Ajax, Gavin’s Tampines side has done relatively well because he can successfully blood in exciting prospects around more senior heads. Yet, Gavin has to be given due credit because he believes in developing young players into first-team regulars.

Amirul Adli, Joel Chew, Shah Syahiran, Ryaan Sanizal, and Syahrul Sazali have become significantly better players under his charge. It would be interesting to see the impact he would have on Iman Hakim and Marc Ryan Tan, who are both real wonderkids, this upcoming season. Boris Kopitović and Taufik Suparno are the only senior strikers at Tampines, and Marc would indeed find opportunities aplenty. He featured nine times for Young Lions in the brief 2020 campaign but never played a full 90 minutes before. His two starts (where he was hauled off midway through the second half) and seven substitute appearances add up to 252 minutes of professional play. Likewise, Iman Hakim has been stellar for Albirex, and under Gavin’s tutelage, he is sure to become even better. In any case, while a move to Young Lions might prove to be an exciting project worth undertaking, it would be a step down for Gavin. The man is destined for bigger projects outside of Singapore, and it is only a matter of time before we see him manage in bigger leagues overseas.

One name pops to mind – Lee Lim Saeng. The former Home United head coach is a revered figure in the local footballing landscape. He won the Singapore Cup with the Protectors and guided them to two runner-up positions during his 4-year spell with the club. The Korean has gone on to achieve spectacular feats since leaving Singapore’s shores. After leaving Home United in 2014, Lee went on to the Chinese Super League where he held head or assistant coaching positions at Shenzhen FC, Yanbian Funde, and Tianjin Teda between 2013 and 2018. Between 2018 and 2019, Lee was appointed as the Korean FA (KFA) technical director for the national Under-20 team. Suwon Samsung Bluewings swooped in for Lee in 2019, and he won the Korean FA Cup with them. He departed Suwon in 2020 and is currently engaging in an ad-hoc consultant role with the Korean FA.

The obvious question would then be why would someone like Lee be interested in the Young Lions project. That is an excellent question to ask. Given his current role as KFA consultant, it would appear that Lee is interested in the prospect of national team management. The Young Lions job would traditionally entail managing the national under-23 side for international fixtures and competitions. It would be interesting if Lee took up the Young Lions job and the national under-23 team position. Many local players that have had a chance to work under Lee know the impact he has on a team and how he can transform a player.

Some fans might be doubtful as to whether a new coach might help or not. Instead, they might argue that scrapping the Young Lions is the way forward in ensuring that each club is incentivised to train its youth players. Here’s the thing though, do each club truly have the facilities for youth development? I don’t believe so. Furthermore, there isn’t any club that is ready to join or return to the Singapore Premier League. While there are rumours that Warriors FC might rejoin this campaign, nothing has materialised thus far. There have been even talks that Albirex Niigata might have to sit out because of their inability to fill up their squad with players. If no team rejoins and Albirex pulls out, there will be only eight teams remaining in the league (7 if Brunei chooses to pull out). In such a scenario, perhaps it is impractical to scrap the Young Lions.

Nevertheless, the FAS should bring Lee into their set up – preferably as the Young Lions and National U-23 Head coach. The FAS needs to consistently update and improve their plans to develop Singapore football. With Lee’s current role in the KFA, his experience coaching in top-flight football across East Asia, and his familiarity with Singapore, he would become an important asset. I say give someone like Lee 3 years at Young Lions. Time is a crucial factor because it allows Lee to implement the changes he wishes to make. At the end of the three years, if nothing significant changes, then I guess the Young Lions should be permanently ended. Let’s give the project one last opportunity to yield some results.

Featured Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

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Sign him up! Odion Ighalo to United is a NO-BRAINER

When Manchester United announced the signing of Odion Ighalo on deadline day, it would be safe to say that everyone in the footballing world was caught by surprise. It was no secret that the club was scouring the transfer market for a striker. Even before Marcus Rashford’s long-term injury, the Red Devils were short on options in the forward department. The lack of strikers was evident with Daniel James playing as a makeshift striker a few times this season. Linked with names like Mario Mandžukić and Erling Braut Håland, no one expected United to sign the Ex-Watford Nigerian international (from Shanghai Greenland Shenhua no less). Ighalo himself could not believe the news. But once he realized it was a legitimate offer and not a ruse, he could not refuse the opportunity to represent his boyhood club (even it was for a short 5 months). 

Photo by Alex Motoc on Unsplash

I won’t lie. I had my doubts with the move at first. In recent years, the footballing world has witnessed some quality players make the move to China and play in the league Chinese Super League (CSL). That being said, there is a significant gulf in quality between the CSL and the English Premier League. Still, despite my initial apprehension, Ighalo has done incredibly well and his performances have merited a permanent move to United. His tally of 4 goals in 8 appearances shows that he can bang in the goals. Not only that, his overall performance has demonstrated that he brings many new elements to the team.

Don’t get me wrong, Ighalo is no sure starter for every match, and this is something that the Nigerian himself is well aware of. I daresay that Ighalo would give it his all even if it meant he only played in cup matches for United. That’s the kind of person he is. As a boyhood United fan, he is finally living his dream (something every United fan has once dreamt of) – to don on the United jersey and play for the Red Devils. He is precisely the player we need because his primary focus is to help the team whenever he’s on the field. He does not demand playing time, but he gives it all during training sessions. In short, he is proud to play for the club.

Above all, he offers something different to what Mason Greenwood, Anthony Martial, and Marcus Rashford do. Unlike these pacey forwards, his hold-up play is excellent. Sure, he has missed a few chances so far, but he has also produced when it mattered. His goals in the Europa League helped the club progress through the next round and given time, he would have almost certainly notched a few in the EPL.

He is a prime solution to the issue of squad depth – a different forward who is content with playing backup. Ighalo reminds me of Louis Saha during the 2007/2008 season, when Manchester United preferred the partnership of Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney. Down the pecking order, Saha contributed when it mattered and was a real team player. Now that I think about it, Manchester United always had somewhat proper third-choice forwards to field (Think Michael Owen, Danny Welbeck, James Wilson, Falcao – okay some were pretty awful, but the point is that there was depth). Ighalo is a unique player and is different from Saha. However, just as Saha offered something different to what Tevez and Rooney offered United going forward, so does Ighalo to the current crop of United forwards.

United need to act fast. His loan deal expires on 31st May 2020, and there seems to be no attempt to secure his services permanently. Shanghai is reportedly asking around 15 million pounds for the transfer, and while it looks like a fair bit for an ageing forward, it is honestly pocket change for the Glazers. Just look at Brady’s contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (the Glazers’s other team).

Strangely, the impact of the coronavirus may have helped Ighalo’s cause. The global pandemic has apparently altered United’s transfer strategy. Ed Woodward has recently ruled out any big-money signings in the next transfer window, citing that the virus has devastated the financial side of the footballing world. A signing like Ighalo, therefore, makes sense. A relatively cheap but proper forward who is willing to take a massive pay cut to join the club is a no-brainer for United.

However, we have made questionable transfer decisions in the past and not signing Ighalo could potentially be a new one. Whatever happens this summer, I am going to be ballsy and say this – Ighalo has joined the ranks of Henrik Larsson and Michael Owen in becoming a cult hero at United. He will be fondly remembered regardless of his duration of stay (though I sincerely hope it extends beyond the current campaign).