Changes have to be made: S-League CEO

Last Sunday was meant to be the night to celebrate S-League football at its annual awards show, but its embattled chief executive Lim Chin found himself booed and heckled by the audience.

It capped what had been a testing week for Lim, who days earlier had announced his controversial plans to impose an age restriction on local players and downsize the league from 12 teams to 10 in a bid to refresh the competition.

In an interview with The Straits Times, he stuck to his guns while speaking for the first time about his new initiatives.

The league's top executive, who was hired in 2012, said: "The demographic of our league is slightly lopsided... and we'd like to correct the balance a little bit... to inject more youth and talent into the league.

"Once this technical correction has been achieved, we may erase this rule in due course."

According to statistics provided by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS), the proportion of local outfield players over 30 has risen steadily, climbing to the current 38.5 per cent.

In 2012, that figure was 31.5 per cent and 30.1 per cent last year.

The FAS also noted that 21.8 per cent of J-League players are aged 30 and above while it sampled eight top clubs from Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, China and Australia and found that it was 21.3 per cent.

It is hoped the new measures will ensure that fewer than one in three S-League players will be above that age next season.

With the current number of senior players, there are "artificial barriers" for youngsters who can make the grade and want to come into the league, said Lim.

Last week, he announced that the league will cull two home-grown clubs for the 2015 season, with Tanjong Pagar United sitting out and Hougang United merging with Woodlands Wellington.

This leaves six local clubs (besides Malaysia's Harimau Muda, Brunei DPMM and Japan's Albirex Niigata) plus the Courts Young Lions, who are essentially the national Under-23s.

In addition, an age cap will be implemented - local clubs with 22-man squads can sign only five Singaporean outfield players over 30 while three players will have to be 25 or under.

This was met with unhappiness in many quarters as players saw their employment opportunities suddenly slashed.

More than 40 current players will be affected when the age restrictions take effect next year.

But Lim, who was jeered by sections of the auditorium each time his name was mentioned during Sunday's S-League Awards Night at ITE College East, rejected the suggestion that the new rulings will discourage talented youngsters from entering the professional ranks.

He said: "I certainly hope not. With these changes, we want to make the league strong and a strong league also implies better salaries for our players... and, along the way, we hope to get more sponsors on board to increase our funding."

Another bugbear of players and staff impacted by the big changes is the short notice given, which caught many unaware and left them scrambling in the off-season to secure employment.

However, Lim stressed that an earlier announcement would have been disruptive as players might have lost focus and motivation with their futures in limbo.

He said: "It would not have been fair to all the clubs if we did it in the middle of the season as some would be affected more than others and this could affect the integrity of the league."

The chairmen of the clubs had been deliberating over this issue since August and were all in agreement, he revealed.

"They agreed that we shouldn't announce this to the staff and players primarily (because) of the fact that it would affect them, like how it has done now, and we should only do it at the end of the season."

For those whose livelihoods are affected, the league will help in their career transition and offer assistance towards diploma courses and placement opportunities at various companies, the CEO said.

Following the woes of 2012, which saw average crowd figures plummet to an all-time low of 932, match-day attendances have been improving.

At the FAS' annual general meeting in September, it noted the year-on-year increases - 45 per cent in 2013 and 40 per cent this year.

Even though he has to weather a storm over his new ideas, Lim remains convinced his policies will prove beneficial in the long term.

"What is important is that we do good policies that are good for the league... Let's bite the bullet, let's do it but, at the same time, what can we do to mitigate the problems, we're already doing so."

I was very upset over what was said: Lim

In an era of online vigilantism, S-League CEO Lim Chin found himself under scrutiny after a private and confidential dialogue in which he was involved was leaked on the Internet.

Last week, he and Tanjong Pagar United chairman Edward Liu met the club's players and staff at Queenstown Stadium to drop the bombshell that the Jaguars would sit out the 2015 campaign.

Shocked by the abrupt delivery of bad news, players and staff questioned Lim and Liu, leading to the S-League chief giving them a tongue-lashing.

"Certainly (I could have been more sympathetic)," said Lim.

"My tone was a bit loud but, certainly, I think we empathised with the players who were affected."

Since the 85-minute recording was circulated online last week, he has taken flak for his tone and choice of words in the exchange.

When Liu's contribution to the club was challenged by the players, Lim blasted back: "The chairman of the club and the management committee (are) above all of you. You are players, nobody is bigger than the club. The chairman heads the club.

"The management committee is not for you to judge... So I think you all need to know where you stand as a player, as a staff, as a coach.

"Do not ever question the chairman on his role and responsibility."

With the benefit of hindsight, Lim conceded that he was "very upset" at that point in the meeting as tempers had already begun to fray.

He explained: "It just hurt me to find that the players, in such a big forum and in front of everyone, were questioning Edward's role and what he has done for the club.

"So, at that moment, I felt that I couldn't sit down and let this continue."

The new changes will affect the livelihoods of many.

Said Leonard Koh, the Jaguars kit-man since 2011: "I can call other clubs to look for a job but vacancies are limited.

"Apart from football, which is my passion, I don't know what else I can do except to referee (he has a Class 2 licence)."

Nevertheless, Lim stressed that options remained for those able to make the grade.

He said: "I agree with the players that it will be a challenge finding another club.

"But, the honest truth is, at the end of the season, players on one-year contracts have to find places on their own, either at the same club or a new club.

"They need to work hard to prove themselves on the field."

This article was first published on Nov 13, 2014.
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