By: Suresh Nair
WITHOUT fear or favour was how legendary Asean football defender Serbegeth Singh, or simply Shebby Singh, lived his six decades as a very much controversial but respected Malaysian sportsman.
His life ended on Wednesday (Jan 12, 2022) following a tragic bicycle accident while cycling in Iskandar Puteri, Johor. It is believed that he fainted due to shortness of breath. His close friend, Zaquan Adha, said that he saw Shebby beforehand, and recalled that Singh looked ‘tired’ and ‘pale’ although he had just started cycling.
He was 61 years and leaves behind wife, Harbans Kaur, a former Malaysian sportswoman, and two children, Sonuljit Singh and Natassha Kaur.
I’ve personally known Shebby for over four decades, as a sports journalist, from his high-profile playing days in Malaysia and later following his retirement, we met more often when he came to Singapore for a number of formal events for Tottenham Hotspur, his favourite English football club, which was also my most passionate English club. He continued to make an outstanding name as a global sports pundit, who spoke very passionately about football.
But he distinctively made global headlines when he was appointed the Director of Football at English club Blackburn Rovers by the Indian-based poultry owners, Venky’s. For most Indian audiences, he became the face of football after his punditry exploits on television. I know he helped analyse countless English Premier League matches with a popular panel, for over three decades.
Shebby was simply unique. He not only did his talking on the field – he had a huge collection of medals and trophies during his two-decade career – but also off it as a popular football pundit. He was, in my opinion, one sportsman blessed with the “gift of the gab”.
Not always right or wrong (who cares really, in football!), he always had his refreshing ideas and he staunchly stuck by them. In this particular position, as Director of Football at Blackburn Rovers, he may need to have the same attitude, especially in dealing with seasoned pundits from the “Land of Football”.
He told me as the Director of Football, he acted as the go-between for the owners and the manager and indeed, controversy followed every step along the way as he knew he needed to be careful not to be seen by the manager or the owners as someone who is not on the same page.
I know, too, another reason was his lack of experience in English football as the majority felt an Asian, with the natural lack of professional playing and/or managerial experience, was not worth listening to. (Although I must say Manchester United’s Park Ji Soon (he won the Premier League four times and became the first Asian player to win the Champions League with United in 2008.
Park was later nominated for the Ballon d’Or in 2007 and also named FIFA.com’s ‘Best Asian Player in Europe’ the same year), Tottenham’s Son Heung Min, Hidetoshi Nakata (labelled as ‘Asia’s answer to David Beckham’), Manchester City’s Sun Jihai and Shinji Kagawa of Manchester United genuinely proved the English fans wrong with their sensational playing exploits in recent times).
But deserving credit to Shebby, who has been a part of football in the global arena, how qualified is he for the job will always be an open-ended question. He could certainly hold his own with the globally famous commentator Steve MacMahon in the studio. But there were those who disagreed with his opinions while many in the media industry valued his in-depth knowledge of the game. He was always there to answer questions without fear or favour. Shebby was, in a nutshell, a very analytical man.
When I asked to define his Blackburn Rovers’ role, Shebby said: “It is difficult to explain when it is not a conventional title, but I am pretty much trying to put the club back on a proper footing. I am fighting enemies from inside and outside the club. Inside every club, you find that not everyone is fighting the same cause. Individuals have their own agenda. This is common everywhere you go.
“I make the decisions, with the owners’ blessing and endorsement. It upsets a lot of people, but unfortunately that’s the way it is. The final decision about appointing Henning Berg was mine, but results were very poor and performances were not the best. A decision had to be made on how long you can put up with that.
“You always think you have made the right decision, but it doesn’t always work out. I do not agree that 57 days was not long enough. It was 10 games. To me, 10 games is a lifetime. I got it wrong on that one. I will hold my hands up and say that, but it is not the end of the world. We still have to soldier on, and the team can still progress.”
I do recollect when Shebby Singh at the Blackburn’s training ground and pointed to a prominent motivational magazine’s tribute to Sir Alex Ferguson (the ultra-famous former Manchester United boss) pinned up on the noticeboard. He remarked, rather mischievously: “What an interesting article – a pity we didn’t put any of Ferguson’s methods into practice!”
That is the real beauty of Shebby and what I adore about him. Every conversation, no matter how serious or light-hearted always has a deadly sting in the tail.
When he got to the Ewood Park training ground of Blackburn Rovers, it was, in his words, “like a holiday home…too many fat cats who were overpaid and underperforming. That’s changing.”. He made it clear: “I watch training but I don’t want to be the manager. I’m here to support the players.’
CONDOLENCES FROM KING
Famous as he was, even the Malaysian King, Yang di-Pertuan Agong Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah, a self-confessed football fanatic, conveyed his condolences to the family of the football legend. Likewise hundreds of politicians, the sporting fraternity and fans.
Shebby’s only son, Sonuljit Singh, did keep close to his chest the real reasons for his father’s death. “However, I am not ready to disclose the results, maybe we will share it with the media in future, until then please give us some space,” he said. He also expressed his appreciation to fellow Malaysians and Singaporeans for their prayers and condolences.
“Thank you so much for the outpouring of love and appreciation on social media, it’s amazing. He just wanted the best for Malaysian football. Much like a teacher who would scold or praise but at the end of the day, he loved football and the country,” said Sonuljit as his father was cremated on Friday (January 14) in Kuala Lumpur.
Rumours relating to Covid 19 always follow any death of even celebrities but Shebby’s family made it clear there was no evidence that his death was related to the COVID-19 vaccine.
I vividly recall there was a time when former national players were roped in for a brainstorming session to arrest the dwindling standard of the Tigers (nickname for Malaysian national team). Shebby spoke his mind and stood up against the national body.
He even spoke up against some more illustrious senior players. He was eloquent in every way.
In fact, I remember he probably talked his way to stardom – becoming a much sought-after football pundit on TV with top broadcasting stations. He even surprised the international football fraternity when he landed a brief stint with English club Blackburn Rovers as their global adviser in 2012.
Let me make it clear that Shebby was never afraid to try new ideas, too. We saw his involvement with “MyTeam” – a reality Malaysian TV show with the aim of raising the bar for Malaysian football in 2006. He also had a brief stint with top club side Johor Darul Ta’zim, managed by the Johor royalty, as their technical advisor.
On the field, Shebby served as Malaysian captain, represented Malaysia in the Asian Games three times (1982, 1986, 1990), won the 1989 SEA Games gold medal, secured the Malaysia Cup “treble” (1987-89) with Kuala Lumpur alongside a star-studded cast which had Singapore legends Fandi Ahmad, Kannan Kunjuraman and Malek Awab.
And he was a joy to interview every time I met him. There was always superior substance in his sharing of knowledge and his years of experience would show. He was bold in his comments too, absolutely without fear or favour.
Shebby started his football career for Johor, before moving to Federal Territory in the late 1990s, for which he was suspended from playing for a year by Johor FA for allegedly moving without permission. He was chiefly associated with Kuala Lumpur FA and was part of the team which won the Malaysia Cup three years in a row from 1987–89. He also played with Negeri Sembilan FA and Pahang FA before ending his career with Perak FA in 1996.
Outstandingly, he played nine years of international football for Malaysia, including playing in three Asian Games in 1982, 1986 and 1990, and was a South-East Asian Games gold medallist in 1989.
His career in domestic football lasted 18 years from 1978 to 1996. He won every domestic honour, including the Malaysia Cup, Malaysian FA Cup and League Championship.
Singapore’s Fandi Ahmad, who was his teammate at Kuala Lumpur and Pahang, was “very sad to hear of the shocking news”. He added: “Shebby was a good friend. He was very friendly and jovial, and very good at motivating others. He was a good player and a good talker who gave clear instructions on the field.”
By the way, Shebby’s much-flavoured gift of the gab led him to become a prominent football pundit on TV, working with Astro SuperSport, Fox Sports and ESPN Asia for the past 24 years.
Former award-winning Malaysia Cup coach Jita Singh, who also coached in Johor and Pahang, said: “Shebby cared very deeply about football and his punditry work. He was not afraid to share his opinion and stand his ground. He was a lot of fun to be with not just on TV, but also a good guy to talk to off-screen as well. I really enjoyed working with him and appreciated the advice he gave.
“He was a worthy family-man, too, and he was also very passionate about his two children in the loving way he spoke about them. We sometimes see these people as celebrities and forget they are people first and foremost, and Shebby was genuinely a great person.”
Born on Aug 20, 1960, Shebby, who hailed from Kluang, Johor was spotted by the late Abdul Shatar Khan, an individual with a reputation for being a youth coach. The late S. Subramaniam later managed to convince Shebby to shift to Kuala Lumpur in 1983, a move that sparked controversy and which led to Shebby being suspended for a year by Johor for allegedly moving without permission.
Shebby told me he first donned national colours in the President’s Cup in South Korea in 1982. He went on to collect 61 caps, with his final outing as a Malaysian player coming against England at the Merdeka Stadium in 1991. Throughout his time with the Harimau Malaya from 1982-1991, Shebby also appeared in three Asian Games – 1982 (New Delhi), 1986 (Seoul) and 1990 (Beijing) – besides winning the SEA (South-East Asia) Games gold medal in the 1989 edition and bronze in the 1985 edition.
Malaysians knew him as a no-holds-barred defender throughout his time with Johor, Kuala Lumpur, Pahang and Negeri Sembilan before he went to carve a name for himself as a television personality, becoming a football pundit, including on Astro SuperSport, FoxSports and ESPN Asia.
His playing credentials were simply awesome, too, as a colourful centreback with Kuala Lumpur, he won the Malaysian League title in 1986, 1987, 1988 and 1989; the Malaysia Cup in 1987, 1988 and 1989; and the FA Cup in 1993 and 1994.
When he was at Blackburn Rovers, Shebby spoke to me about Sir Jack Walker, the steel magnate who pumped money into his hometown team, as the benchmark at Blackburn. Nearly 20 years on from that title-winning team and 12 years after he passed away, Sir Walker is still revered in the area.
Shebby said: “When there is a change in ownership there are expectations and only time will allow my bosses to be spoken of in the same breath as Sir Jack. That is the owners’ ambition and, if we can surpass it eventually, that would be something. Managers want to be remembered like Sir Matt Busby or Bill Shankly, owners want to leave a legacy for the supporters and the town.
“We hope we can stand alongside him. We already have a stand in Ronnie Clayton’s name. If we do get promoted, it may be too soon to think of naming “The Shebby Stand!”.’
Shebby or “shabby” as some of his critics would let fly on him.
He didn’t care and I dare add in conclusion: Much thanks for the wonderful memories, Shebby. Indeed, without fear or favour, as I repeat, he lived his six decades as a controversial but very much respected Malaysian sportsman. Rest in peace, my good friend!
* This Singapore-based writer has known Shebby Singh for over four decades. He ranks as one of Asia’s best-known sports pundits, whose playing career says it all for his outstanding international-reputed sportsmanship, too.
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