When St Joseph's Institution (SJI) football coach Kadir Yahaya walked into the dressing room yesterday moments before the National B Division final against Hong Kah Secondary, there was complete silence.
"You could hear a pin drop. Everyone was so nervous and quiet," Kadir told The New Paper.
"They were clearly overawed by the occasion. I told them there was nothing not to fear - we had played Hong Kah before."
In that second-round clash, SJI - who were crowned South Zone champions in April - ran Hong Kah close, losing 2-1.
Yesterday, on a hot, sticky morning at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, the Josephians paid the price for succumbing to the pressure, going down 6-0 to Hong Kah, who captured their third national crown in four years.
It was SJI's first appearance in a national football final after a 37-year absence and, despite the boisterous support of almost 1,000 student-fans, accompanied by drums and bagpipes, the players' nerves were apparent.
SJI were 2-0 down by the 13th minute as Hong Kah - led by an excellent performance by 15-year-old midfielder Daniel Hakim - were composed and clinical in attack.
Nuri Irfan opened the scoring in the eighth minute with a close-range volley, before Danial, a Home United Academy player, scored via a deflection from outside the box.
Iz Hazwan Azhar then got on the scoresheet from a corner, when his effort was inadvertently helped on by SJI goalkeeper Timothy Wong.
It was game over on the stroke of half-time, when winger Muhammad Al-Fian went on a mazy run and crossed for striker Joel Chng to head home.
SJI, who upset the Singapore Sports School on penalties in the semi-final, were more composed in the second half, but Hong Kah's class and Danial's dominance in midfield was too much to handle.
The Jurong-based school added two more goals through Muhammaad Aidil and Hazwan.
"My team were not used to being here (in the final)," said Kadir, 47, a former national defender who was the assistant coach for the LionsXII in the 2012 Malaysian Super League.
"After this, they will grow. Learning how to handle such pressure is a life lesson.
"SJI have not been in the final since 1978, so this is already an achievement, and I am proud of how they carried themselves throughout the tournament.
"No red cards, no arguing with the referee - just good sportsmanship."
SJI captain Elliot Ng felt the big difference between the second-round match and yesterday's game was the atmosphere.
"The support from our schoolmates was great, but I guess we're used to playing in a quiet venue - not this kind of atmosphere," he said.
"Playing in the semi-final two days ago (on Wednesday) took its toll, but Hong Kah are the best team in the tournament."
Hong Kah, champions in 2012 and 2014, might not have had the same type of support in the stands as their opponents, but they certainly had more raw talent on the pitch, with six players attached to either the National Football Academy or to S.League youth squads.
Said Hong Kah coach Zainudeen Hassan: "It was a team effort, but my two central midfielders (Danial and Hazwan) played very well.
"Credit to SJI for coming this far. The difference in the final was experience. We're used to playing in front of the crowds and the drums.
"And the early goals helped as well."
This article was first published on July 25, 2015.
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