V. Sundramoorthy: National football coach at the wrong place at the wrong time?

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Suresh Nair

OUT-OF-JOB Singapore national coach V Sundramoorthy can find some solace in the words of Fabio Capello, the former Real Madrid and England coach Fabio Capello, who also retired from football management this week.

The 71-year-old Italian, who has also had high-profile coaching spells at AC Milan, Juventus, Roma and Russia, hit the nail on the head when he said: “We are good coaches when we have good players.

“It is difficult to do well with mediocre players. At the moment Italian football is missing great players that can make the difference, there are no leaders. In Serie A there is little quality. You learn from the best but if the best are bought by the strongest foreign clubs, Italian football doesn’t have good teachers, good players from whom to learn.”

It precisely sums up the predicament of Sundramoorthy, arguably one of the greatest players the past half-century, with Europe-class contemporaries like Fandi Ahmad, who finds themselves in a strange lurch because of a new generation of lesser committed players.

Yes, I admit Sundram is a personal friend and former neighbour at Opera Estate, But touching my heart, I must say that the knives have been at his shoulder after a sorry string of regional results which inevitably let to social media screaming for his head for the continuing debacle, and calling for him to step down or be sacked.

I admit his track record was nothing to crow about and an average primary school lad would’ve got the ‘rotan’ from his parents – just three wins in 22 official outings as head coach of the national side – all coming in friendlies.

SUNDRAM’S REPORT BOOK

Sundram’s report book shows the Lions broke a 13-game winless streak with a 3-2 win over Maldives last month before closing out their AFC Asian Cup qualifying campaign with a 1-0 loss to Chinese Taipei, which saw them finish rock bottom of Group E. Red marks, lah!

But looking at the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) predicament in recent years, I ask: Is it fair to pin the blame entirely on Sundram, who was only appointed to his position in May 2016, starting as a “caretaker” one-year-contract coach, which hardly inspired both the team and Sundram.

Family friends of Sundram tell me he had to work with several constraints, many of which were beyond his control. For Sundram, it meant he had little margin for error and that he had to focus on getting results, not playing attractive, exciting football.

More importantly, to the Lions, it sent the message that the FAS did not quite trust the former Tampines Rovers and LionsXII coach enough to give him the job on a permanent, long-term basis, and this perhaps undermined the authority that Sundram had on the team.

His football tactics were questioned, too. His ‘soak-and-counter’ strategy worked wonders in helping the now-defunct LionsXII win the Malaysia Super League (MSL) title in 2013, it is hard to fault Sundram for resorting to this tried-and-tested tactic for the Suzuki Cup, especially with half-baked players in his stable.

WHAT ANG PENG SIONG SAYS

Olympian legendary swimmer Ang Peng Siong touched on the “winning team and a winning culture” which is sorely lacking in the No 1 sport. Hailed Asia’s “Flying Fish” who once held world No 1 ranking in the 50m freestyle and was former national swim coach, he says: “Bill Sweetenham was my mentor and he has always been very candid with his views on ‘high performance’. The will of the leader in the sports has to reflect the desire to succeed.
“How do we build a winning team and a winning culture? Clearly, talent is not the problem. Sundramoorthy has shown his ability as a player and a coach.

“The question should be: Are we “hungry” for success? Are we giving the best support to our national coach? Are we building players who are hungry and competitive to earn their place on the national team? High Performance coaching is an art and a mastery! Was Sundram given the backing and support to execute his mastery?”

In many ways, as I followed Sundram as a sports journalist for over three decades, I know that his hands were tied inside out. I know there’re sections calling for the return of Raddy Avramovic, who led Singapore to three AFF (Asean Football Federation) titles over a 10-year period. But please ponder that he did it with teams that featured naturalised key players such as Aleksandar Duric, Shi Jiayi, Qiu Li, Agu Casmir, as well as Daniel Bennett and Mustafic Fahrudin in their prime.

In a nutshell, the previous Suzuki Cup campaigns have only served to highlight the problems in Singapore’s footballing ecosystem, especially in terms of both player and coaching development.

YEARS OF FOOTBALL NEGLECT

In my opinion, the disastrous campaigns are the direct result of years of neglect on several levels – from youth and adult grassroots, to schools football, to local clubs’ centres of excellence (COEs) and even the S-League. And we may face the same red-mark climax later this year, too.

Terry Pathmanathan, the longest-serving former national skipper, nicknamed “Captain Marvel”, for his exemplary leadership qualities, says: “He was very positive when he took the job. Tactically smart but over cautious. Like the saying goes, if you take up the job, be prepared to be removed the next day. That’s the demand.

“I think Sundram was afraid of losing and could not handle it as a person and coach. He is very committed and passionate, hope I am not wrong, but struggle to communicate and motivate without putting undue pressure on the players. I think he faced problems with the selection of players and team.

“He must have placed a lot of pressure on himself to deliver results and that could have played a part in style of play that was often criticised. Anyway on a positive note, it’s an experience that he had the opportunity to gain and come out as a better person.”

Richard Wong, manager of Singapore Ex-Internationals, says there is “no right or wrong on Sundram as a national coach”. He explains: “In my many years as a team manager I always work closely with the coach on team matters. Whoever appoint him should a faith in him. Sundram played his football at the highest level, went as far as Europe, so how bad can he be?

“As I said earlier if our national team didn’t do well, the set-up has got to take responsibility, not just Sundram. He tried his best but results gone otherwise, too bad, it’s right for him to step down let other to take charge.

Wong reiterates that “we must seriously revamp the whole system to improve our development”. He adds: “Personally I think it’s not easy because of our sporting culture and also the academic-paper chase. Just look at Singapore Sports School, what have they produced? Your answer is as good as mine.”

Award-winning former national coach Jita Singh (SNOC ‘Coach of the Year’ 1981) says it’s “not right to point the finger at Sundram alone”. He says: “He lacks the experience and expertise at international level but has the FAS seriously looked at ways and means of upgrading his technical skills?

“Sundram played the tactical way he did, simply because he knew that if he loses, he’ll be out. And very importantly, the lack of regional-quality players was a major handicap.”

FIFA coaching lecturer Vincent Sundramaniam, a former national coach from 1998-2002 and S-League ‘Coach of the Year’ in 1996 and 1997, agreed with Jita Singh and rightly pointed out that “tactics and strategy depend on the ability of the players you have”.

He says: “Sundram choice of selecting suitable players was limited. His objective I guess was not to lose by big margins and he took a conservative approach. This, from the spectators point, did not go down well with them. Spectators have their dreams of successful Suzuki Cups and expect the same.

RISK OF INTRODUCING YOUNG PLAYERS

“Introduce young players from the Under-23 would mean taking major risks with the potential of heads rolling. We need some patience for them to gain regional experience but the Under-23 lads, who dominated the Singapore Premier League (SPL) are not ready, perhaps with the exception of Irfan Fandi’s induction into the national team which appears to be smooth.”

Veteran lawyer and respected football critic Lau Kok Keng seriously pointed out that “Sundram’s caretaker coach on a one-year deal in 2016 only served to raise doubts in some minds as to whether his appointment was merely an interim, stop-gap measure while the hunt for Bernd Stange’s replacement went on, and if there was sufficient confidence in his ability to fill the national coach position in the longer term”.

He adds: “Nonetheless, Sundram took on the unenviable task of not only having to get the national team back to the levels of performance last seen on a consistent basis under Raddy Avramovic, but also being the first local coach in 16 years to do so, and without the benefit of foreign-born naturalised players which Raddy had enjoyed during his successful tenure as national head coach.

“But by the time Sundram took over, it was clear that the youth development pipeline and the declining S-League were not producing the supply of footballing talent that was needed to allow Sundram to achieve the results which he would have wanted to in order to prove his detractors wrong.”

Lau, with Rajah & Tann Singapore LLP, and head the firm’s Intellectual Property, Sports & Gaming practices, has worked on legal matters with various local and regional stakeholders, including SportSG, Singapore Pools, FIFA, UEFA and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). He’s one of the rare Singaporeans who act as arbitrators with the Court of Arbitration for Sport, an international body established to settle sports-related disputes through arbitration.

He adds: “If you gave a good chef limited or poor ingredients, or worse, food whose expiry dates have passed, it is unlikely that he would be able to whip up a good meal. A better chef may improvise some of the time, but the underlying issues would not have been resolved.

“The success of the national team is often the product of the efforts put in by the entire football community – from schools to clubs to the national association, whose governance and administration of the sport off the field would invariably determine the results achieved on it.”

He warns that the appointment of “the right coach is just one factor that may determine the success of the national team”.

Lau, who was also Vice Chairman of S-League Geylang International and also served on various FAS sub-committees, including the Captains Advisory Panel (CAP), Singapore Masters 9s and Football Heritage Project, says: “Practically every sport would have, at some point in time, encountered this question: Is the head coach to be held responsible for the team’s failure?

“The coach is required to map out key strategies and plans to make the team successful eventually, and to lead and motivate the team to perform at a level that is greater than the sum of their individual parts.

“But the coach can only do so much. Ultimately, it is the players that get onto the field and get the results. If the players aren’t motivated to train well, then they won’t play well, and poor results will follow. Whether it is a case of players who were not motivated to do well under Sundram for the past two years, or if they just didn’t have the quality to deliver on the field, is something which is for the next national coach to find out.”

Summing up, Lau sympathises with Sundram as having been in the “wrong place at the wrong time, but he will now have to prove that he is the right man in his next coaching job”.

COMMUNICATE WITH PLAYERS

A football insider with 30 years football experience, writing for the major English newspapers, who declined to be named, puts it bluntly: “Confidentially, Sundram was a great player but not a good coach.”

“Tactically he may be sound, but did not know how to communicate with players. He did not have the command or aura about him,” he adds. “He was not willing to take chances. He was struggling to string victories and after a series of defeats, he became so defensive and trying to play for draws.

“Also I don’t think, with the Fandi (Ahmad) shadow looming, players were willing to play for Sundram.”

Former Warriors FC and Hougang United coach Alex Weaver, with a Bachelor of Coaching Science Degree at Liverpool John Moores University, blames the top-hierarchy as the primary cause of the failure.

He says: “If you were to ask me if Sundramoorthy is the right man for the national team, look at it this way. You could have Antonio Conte (Chelsea) or Jose Mourinho (Manchester United) as the head coach and nothing would change.”

He also provided this anecdote which served to highlight the chicken-and-egg situation Singapore football is currently struggling with.

He rightly cites 40-year-old Tampines Rovers defender Daniel Bennett as a prime example. 137 caps for Singapore, currently holding the national record for the most international matches played.

He says: “He’s been so successful here but he could walk around Orchard Road and no one will approach him to say hello and ask for an autograph. It’s bizarre!”

Weaver asks: “Do people have to care for the S-League to improve, or does the S-League have to improve for the people to care?”

Suresh Nair is a veteran sports journalist who has covered football matters for over three decades. He feels the “mutual consent” decision between FAS and Sundram to leave must be the biggest wake-up call for FAS.