SPL: For the first time, all seven professional clubs have local coaches

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(Photo: YT screengrab)

THIS is the rarest “first” in the 24-year history of professional football with the seven Singapore clubs having Singaporeans as the head coach.

Only the two foreign clubs, defending champion Albirex Niigata and Brunei DPMM are without a Singaporean tactician in the S-League, now re-named SPL (Singapore Premier League).

From former international-stalwarts Fandi Ahmad (Young Lions), Saswadimata Dasuki (Home United) and Noor Ali (Geylang International) to Clement Teo (Hougang United), Gavin Lee (Tampines Rovers), Khidhir Khamis (Balestier Khalsa) and Azlan Alipah (Warriors).

The inevitable big questions: Is it this budget-driven or development-driven? Perhaps a sign of changing times with more home-grown coaches given the big break? Or plausibly a desperate cost-cutting measure not to engage more experienced foreigners? Or, more critically, do these coaches have the mandatory AFC Pro Licence Diploma (the highest Asian football coaching badge) to take charge of the SPL clubs?

Former Singapore skipper Terry Pathmanathan, who coached the Young Lions (2009) and Tanjong Pagar (2011) in the S-League, and played for Malaysia Cup champion Pahang (1982-1987) says: “Pleased to hear and hope that the coaches can show their abilities at highest levels. The club management must show their support and belief in the coaches. They have the right to hire and fire the coach, but must not interfere with the coaching and technical matters.”

The thumbs-up also came from former national coach P N Sivaji, now a technical director with a Myanmar-based pro club Hantharwardy United: “I think it is fantastic that the local coaches get this opportunity. We have a rising number of pro licence coaches on the FAS’ register. And without the requisite experience, the pro diploma is just a document.”

‘POSITIVE MOVE’

Ex-Home United coach Aidil Shahrin, whose new Malaysian team Kedah is surprisingly at the top of the Malaysian Super League (MSL) after four opening matches, says: “It’s a positive move, long overdue if you ask me, to have local coaches in Singapore teams. We have seen many foreign coaches, not all can bring success and they need time to adjust to our culture and ruling.”

Jose Raymond, a multiple award-winning former journalist, looks at “development-minded options”. He says: “It is good that clubs are giving opportunities to Singaporean-accredited coaches. They need top-level opportunities to help them develop their careers. Hopefully, more of our coaches can then be given roles outside of Singapore which will be beneficial for their personal development.”

Clement Teo, a former FAS match-commissioner, with a AFC ‘A’ Licence who will be coaching Hougang United, is “silently optimistic”. He says: “It is a very bold and pragmatic decision. We have a very big pool of talented coaches and they know the culture of the players which is an important aspect in the SPL. Let’s look positively to a successful season .”

For the highly-respected former Malaysia Cup fullback Kadir Yahaya, who took Singapore Cubs to a bronze-medal finish in the 2010 Youth Olympic Games, he hopes the head coaches will show “more respect and dedication to their roles”.

Kadir is not a SPL head coach. He is mentoring 29-year-old Tampines Rovers’ Gavin Lee and the Stags started their 2019 season with a bang after sealing a 3-1 comeback victory away to Yangon United in the AFC Cup Group ‘F’ opener.

But let’s lay the pragmatic cards on the table: The critics, rather rightly, say that overall S-League standards, over two decades, have dropped drastically, evidence by very poor fan-turnouts and now shared-stadiums, for the first time, without a proper home-and-away concept, which is usually a “must” to create a heartland fan-base in any regional professional league.

A former Cup-winning Singapore coach, who wished to remain anonymous, says: “Kachang puteh (peanuts, in Malay) league calls for kachang puteh coaches! You wonder who is calling the shots as it’s mandatory for the professional clubs to have AFC Pro-Licence Diploma at the helm.

A number of clubs are clearly circumventing the rules and the FAS appear to turn a blind eye to this.”

For example, the fledgling tactician at Tampines is Kadir Yahaya to act as a figurehead on behalf of Lee, who is under-qualified and an unknown without pro-league experience.

But Kadir is not moaning or complaining as he now coaches at St Joseph Institution, a rising school power, and is “excited by the prospect of another talented young coach emerging”, which he feels has long been too fixated with coaches from foreign regions.

‘GIVE THEM A CHANCE’

“The club chairmen are now willing to give them a chance,” Kadir told FOX Sports Asia. “It will definitely help our game to develop better with these local coaches getting the experience at such a high level

“You look at Gavin. He is only 29 and he will now get the experience of coaching at the top level. Khidhir at Balestier and Warriors’ Azlan are two other young coaches who will only get better in the SPL.

“The good thing going with these young coaches is they are more receptive to modern techniques and are tech-savvy. They can introduce new coaching methods and bring a different dimension to the game. Football is no longer just a game played on the field, half the battle is worn in preparation.”

However, Kadir stressed that coaches cannot take their appointment for granted and must respect the obligations. He explains: “The club chairmen have entrusted them (coaches) with the biggest jobs and they must show their commitment and honour their contracts. You can’t be the head coach of a SPL club and still coach part-time at schools, academies or have other jobs.

“To be head coach of a SPL club is serious business and requires 110 per cent focus. How will they concentrate if they have other jobs or responsibilities on their minds? I know some coaches are still working outside of their jobs at the football club and that is just ridiculous.”

Kadir knows that domestic financial constraints continue to be the biggest headache. He explains: “I know some of them complain that the salary is not good enough and that is why they take on other jobs but this reason is not good enough. You must focus everything you have on it and like how you expect your players to perform, if you do well as a coach, better offers will start coming in and even overseas clubs will want your signature.”

Kadir, a winner of the 1994 “Double” Malaysia Cup team, is a stickler for training and hopes the new head coaches will bring back the intensity in training on a day-to-day basis.

“One thing that I feel strongly about is our clubs training just once a day, mostly in the evenings. Why can’t we do double sessions? What makes us so special to only train once a day and expect to be professionals?” he laments.

“Every club does it whether it is in Asia or Europe. Maybe our relaxed mentality has become a bad habit. Some want to send their kids to school, want to send their wives to work and others complain it is too hot and will not benefit the players.

“Most of the SPL players have played football since young in Singapore and the weather is something we are used to. I am not asking the entire team to do two trainings a day. The coach can bring in different departments on different days.

“Like bringing in the attackers to work on shooting drills, wingers to come in and just put 100 crosses in as practice. This is what coaches are paid to do. To get results for the club but also improve each and every individual player on your team.”

‘100 PER CENT RESPONSE’

Former Olympian sprinter C. Kunalan, named SNOC ‘Sportsman of the Year’ in both 1968 and 1969, and widely regarded as the greatest Singapore sprinter, who also loves football, says: “The younger players must believe in these newcomer local coaches. I hope they have the 100 per cent support. More importantly, the coach must win the 100 per cent response from the ‘key’ players.”

Two FAS Council Members, former internationals, too, hailed the all-local-coaches move. Razali Saad, who skippered the Lions from  1986-88 with 53 ‘A’ international caps, says it’s “crucial to expose Singapore coaches at highest level where they’re familiar with the younger generation of players…it’s also part of our ‘Coaches Pathway’ to boldly develop the refreshingly younger coaches”.

Yakob Hashim, former international goalkeeper who played in the 1984 Asian Cup, praises it as a “breath of fresh air for the SPL…the home coaches must be given the trust and confidence to do the biggest job. They will gain experience from this exposure. They must focus on their job and not taking it for granted.”

Ex-specialist police officer K. Kandasamy, who was assistant team manager of 1994 Malaysia Cup ‘Double’ winning team, says: “I believe in Made-in-Singapore quality. This year is a very big gamble but a game-changing SPL season as seen in the last week’s ‘Charity Shield’ where Home United shocked Albirex Niigata in a penalty-kick shoot-out. More upsets may be on the cards and may excite fans to come and support the SPL with local players and coaches.”

Former Home United honorary secretary Azni Muhammad moans about the lack of coaching quality and the “branded coaches in the mould of ‘Uncle’ Choo Seng Quee, Jita Singh, Majid Ariff, Vincent Subramaniam and P N Sivaji”.

“Let’s be very frank, how many of them have shown overall qualities often showed by better coaches that we’ve often seen and read. I don’t belittle that Singapore cannot produce top-notch coaches . In fact, we can because we’ve always done well as long as there are systems in place and resources given to do so,” he says.

INVESTMENT IN COACHES

“At this point of time, we’ve not been systematically investing in a programme to produce top class coaches. I’ve commented earlier that investment in local coaches is a must . It must be driven from the top for longer term success and sustainability.”

In his years with the now-defunct S-League, he adds, “only very few coaches display a managerial skill set that develops the team beyond just football”. He explains: “They made use of resources available, no matter how lean, to invest in areas to support soccer development, game analysis, physical fitness programmes, discipline, nutrition, physiotherapy , talent recruitment and nurturing , psychological, etc.

“When we succeed, the rest of Singapore football will fall into place because at the helm are coaches with very strong mentorship and footballing philosophy. I always emphasised  the role of coaches in sports development. The coaches too should never narrow down themselves to be amateurs.”

Englishman Steve Darby, former title-winning Home United S-League coach who also coached Kelantan, Johor and Perak, says: “It’s great for local coach development as they now have an exciting career path. But what impresses me more is people like Sivaji (Myanmar), Mike Wong (Laos) and Aidil Shahrin (Malaysia) stepping out of their comfort zone and becoming a foreign coach. I respect their ambition and drive. But I must also add that the seven coaches were chosen on merit and not purely the cheapest option available.”

Darby’s daring parting words: “I wish them best of luck and hope they’re strong in their coaching beliefs and don’t bow to management interferences. I hope a few speak their minds and get fined as well!”

Former S-League ‘Coach of the Year’ and former national coach Vincent Subramaniam, now a FIFA instructor based in Bangalore, India, sent me this SMS: “Thumps up to local coaches. That is the trend in our region. Australia, Japan, South Korea went to the World Cup Finals with their ‘local’ coach. Only Iran engaged a foreign coach (Carlos Queiroz, the former Manchester United trainer) who was with them for nine years. The recent Asian Cup painted a similar picture. Newly-crowned champion Qatar, who will host the World Cup Finals in 2022, had in the beginning a long-term youth development programme. But soon realised and invested in coach education. That daring investment is nicely paying off.”

‘HIGH-INTENSITY PRO-LEAGUE EXPERIENCE’

The final word from award-winning former national coach Jita Singh, who won the Malaysia Cup as the youngest coach at 31 years: “At some point, we must start boldly investing in home-grown coaches. We’ve probably the highest number of AFC Pro-Licence coaches in Asia and they deserve the high-intensity pro-league experience, right at home.

“It’s a risk but sometimes you got to gamble when you’re close to the pits instead of depending on foreign coaches. If the coaches excel, just like the players, they’ll be identified even by the neighbours as what’s happening to Aidil (Shahrin) at Kedah, who, in my opinion, is currently the most successful S-League club coach, when at Home United.”

The SNOC 1981 ‘Coach of the Year’ adds: “Honestly, we have to stop complaining and take the feedback given, break it down and absorb what is needed to change the game. The SPL is crying out for a long-overdue change. Singapore football, for the matter, is screaming for some regional success at any age-group level, too.

“All talk and no action just makes us go round and round with no end goals. Hopefully, this 24th SPL season sees the real change that our game desperately needs.”