By Suresh Nair
GROUNDSMAN Lambri Moondari is a workaholic who hardly takes a day off. But over the Christmas long weekend, he took his family for a rare Batam holiday and it turned out tragic.
The 66-year-old suffered a freak head injury after a fall in the hotel toilet in the Indonesian island. He was rushed by ferry to the Singapore General Hospital, remained unconscious with a blood clot and died due to the medical complications on the X’mas Monday public holiday.
He ranks as probably the longest serving groundsman with Sports Singapore, serving his last two decades at S-League club Hougang United, at the 3,800-capacity stadium along Hougang Avenue 2, where his extraordinary dedication to work and community has been repeatedly acknowledged.
“It is heartbreaking to even have to think about writing a formal club tribute for Lambri,” says Hougang United general manager Matthew Tay. “He was taken from us far too soon. Our deepest sympathy is with the family at this devastating time.”
Tay says that Lambri struck a special cord with players, officials and fans with the passionate way he performed his work. He adds: “He was a fantastic man who is irreplaceable at the club and many of our lives. He was a fountain of knowledge both on and off the field and wanted the best for the club and its members at all times.
FATHER FIGURE AT HOUGANG
“The club always looked at him as a father figure for all – whether that was giving you some straight talking or just a hug and some gentle words of advice, on top of his overall duties in keeping the Hougang Stadium ground as probably one of the best fields in Singapore.”
Lambri’s exemplary dedication showed through his work-presence. He is usually the first to show up and the last to leave. Tay says: “The ground was more than his second home. He idolised the club, stadium and the pitch. Practically every morning he would be out on the pitch under the hot sun scattering fertiliser, cutting grass, flattening the pitch and personally marking the boundary lines just to make sure the pitch is ready for training and match days.”
His experience in field horticulture was “outstanding for someone without a formal turf-like academic degree”. Tay says: “He always gives the right advice on the treatment of field before big match-days, on when or not to roll the pitch when it’s soft after a downpour. He could anticipate the potential longer-term field damage. Above all, he was always willing to share and listen to both sides of views in field-management.”
Tay says he remembers Lambri during a recent “make-or-break” S-League match. He recounts: “He told me that he had tied the nets really hard and it’d be perfect for scoring goals. ‘You’ll win,’ he says. The Cheetahs (Hougang’s nickname) won that evening, true to Lambri’s prediction.”
Hougang skipper Nurhilmi Jasni, who has been at the club since 2012, said: “His dedication is evident through our field’s tip-top condition. When we report for our morning training, he is already at the stadium. He is a cheerful soul, and we are sad to see him go.”
STARTED AS GRASS-CUTTER
Lambri, a father of three, started as a grass-cutter at the Farrer Park field in 1971. He joined the National Sports Promotion Board in 1971 before the Singapore Sports Council (now Sport Singapore) was established in 1973. He rose through the ranks from an unskilled workman to become a groundsman at Queenstown Stadium in 1977 before he moved to Hougang Stadium in 2000.
Rain or shine, he faithfully and painstakingly patched up the pitch six days a week, and even trimmed the grass before it was outsourced to a contractor, says Tay.
A self-confessed football fanatic, he grew up idolising former Singapore legsnds of the “Kallang Roar” era of the mid-1970s, Arshad Khamis, Samad Allapitchay, Quah Kim Song and the late Dollah Kassim,
Former S-League chief executive officer Colonel (Retired) Lim Chin, who created a “special award” in 2013 for the unsung heroes, describes Lambrias an “icon of Hougang Stadium”. He says: “On almost every occasion I was there I always bump into him. He is truly a very dedicated and most hardworking guy that takes pride in his work and Hougang Stadium is one of the best maintained pitches in Singapore.
“Few seasons ago, the S-League wanted to recognise the unsung heroes and acknowledge the groundsmen who toil tirelessly behind the scenes to maintain the pitches which is a real challenge due to over-usage. Without hesitation, the S-League staff unanimously picked Hougang Stadium as the best pitch and I was most honoured to present an award to Lambri and thank him for his good efforts. May he rest in peace.”
COMPASSIONATE TO EVERYONE
Personally, I remember Lambri with an amicable smile whenever he greeted me at Hougang Stadium with a firm handshake. He was humble personified and his trademark was in being equally attentive and compassionate to people as he was to the pitch.
“The pitch changes day by day – it is never the same,” he once told me. “You’ve got to closely keep watch as you would a son or daughter and decide how best to nurture it to get the best. Yes, it’s tough work but I enjoyed it very much, There’re always nice and hard days, very unpredictable but field management was something very close to my heart.”
Former Hougang defender Delwinder Singh remembers Lambri as a “sidelines motivator”. He explains: “He was always cheerful, always smiling. Whenever he saw us, he would wave and greet us. Even if you were having a bad day, seeing him would brighten your day. He was an honest man too, telling us we played well or not after matches, but there was always encouragement from him.”
Lambri was awarded a S-League ‘Special Award’ in 2013 after Straits Times journalist Fabius Chen featured him in a Sunday Times story published on April 28. Chen was decorated with the RHB ‘Story of the Year’ award for the compassionate article and for Lambri it was the first time a groundsman was honoured with such an accolade by the S-League.
Chen says: “Lambri’s work over the past 20-odd years is just one example of what is being done behind the scenes of the S-League. He may not be cheered by the fans but it is because he does his job that their heroes are able to do theirs. I would like to thank him for sharing his story with me – from talking in the stands under the afternoon sun, to explaining the nature of his work as we walked the pitch together at 7.00am.”
I recollect that The Sunday Times’ article was a football breakthrough in recognising that there were the unknown souls behind the scenes who deserve formal recognition simply because they took immense pride in their work.
In my books, Lambri will always remain an outstanding example of a simple football “wallflower” whose hard work must be used to raise more awareness about the sometimes thankless job that groundsmen do.
In his tragic Christmas Day death, Hougang United lost a dedicated servant, a rare breed of a groundsman, who from dawn to dusk, endeavoured to give off his best to make sure the pitch was perfect.
Hougang general manager Tay salutes: “A true professional on and off the pitch we share our thoughts and prayers with his family at this time. Maybe gone, impossible to forget. RIP our friend.”
Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based sports journalist who has known Lambri Moondari for over two decades as he covered the S-League beat since the professional league started in 1996.