Pull out the stops for S.League

Pull out the stops for S.League
Ex-Lions star Wilkinson

In April 1996, a football was placed on a crystal stand in front of 50,000 people at the old National Stadium to officially launch the S.League.

It marked the realisation of the dreams of thousands of Singaporeans: a professional league they could call their own.

As the competition prepares to enter its 20th year in 2015, former Singapore attacking midfielder John Wilkinson believes the S.League needs huge backing to get it right.

The 35-year-old, who played for five local clubs from 2002 to 2013, is convinced the state of the Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League is the biggest issue hurting Singapore football today.

"It is pointless having all the youth development programmes if the young players don't have a viable league to play in when they turn professional," said Wilkinson.

"The players are not motivated, because at every game, crowd turnout is poor. The clubs play each other too many times a season.

"Facilities are poor. The new Sports Hub is one thing, but clubs need to play in football-specific stadiums.

"In a country like Singapore, there's no reason why there can't be better facilities."

The English-born Wilkinson, who became a citizen in 2007 - he made 30 appearances for the national team - said the first step of a revamp must be to improve facilities.

"Fans will enjoy watching the game better and more of them will turn up. Players will in turn be more motivated playing in a better arena in front of more fans," he said.

"Thirdly, the clubs need to get top-class foreign players in," he added. "Sure, we can't compete with the money offered in Thailand or the Middle East, but clubs should try and sell living in Singapore.

"Sell the fact that English is the main language here, that the schools are good, and that Singapore is a great place to live."

THE BEST THING

Now a football analyst for Fox Sports, Wilkinson said the breakaway from Malaysian football in 1995 was the best thing to happen to Singapore football.

But he also argues that the entry of the LionsXII in Malaysia's club competitions in 2012 was a step backwards.

"It's not rocket science - the best local players must play in the domestic league, not in someone else's," he said.

"It really doesn't help that the LionsXII players are marketed so much more than those in the S.League. It goes to show that the clubs haven't worked hard enough to market their stars."

The inability of S.League clubs to procure sponsors and get the community involved with local football is a huge problem for the local game, said R Vengadasalam.

"Anywhere in the world where football is successful, the grassroots are involved with the local league," said the Balestier Prime League team manager, who has been involved with the S.League since 1996.

"The local clubs can seek assistance from grassroots leaders to sit on their committee, help with getting sponsors, and even support them in a business sense.

"But the clubs today refuse to invite such help.

"Perhaps they fear being asked questions about how they run the jackpot machines."

Venga, who managed Woodlands from 1988 to 2004, added that GRCs can also help with recruiting and referring players to the S.League clubs, through football clinics or district tournaments.

Players will then be affiliated with the clubs at a young age, and the clubs would in turn aid the kids in their development and widen their own talent pool.

"Football is not a private matter for private people," Venga said.

"It is the people's game. Get the community at large involved.

"We have international clubs like Real Madrid and AC Milan running youth academies here.

"Many of the S.League clubs are not, and that's not right."


This article was first published on September 12, 2014.
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