Young Lions not left out in the cold

Former Singapore captain Aide Iskandar (third from left), who was appointed coach of S-League side Courts Young Lions

SINGAPORE - They were assembled with the aim of delivering Singapore's first South-east Asia (SEA) Games football gold medal on home soil in 2015.

But the Courts Young Lions - effectively the national Under-21 team - have had a forgettable season which has seen them rooted to the bottom of the Great Eastern-Yeo's S-League table with a meagre two points from 15 matches.

From off-the-field issues that have seen them docked points, the team also had to play matches without their head coach Aide Iskandar, who was on national duty with the senior Lions last month.

If there were any concerns that the Young Lions appear to be low down on the priority list of the Football Association of Singapore (FAS), coach Aide and the FAS were keen to play them down.

"The national team are the pinnacle of our football commitment, and we have to give that priority," said Aide, explaining the two occasions where he was away from his charges last month.

He travelled with the senior Lions to assist new national coach Bernd Stange in the friendlies against Myanmar (June 4) and Laos (June 7), and then was deployed as a scout, watching Jordan's game against Oman in Amman (June 18).

Singapore will face Oman in Group A of the Asian Cup qualifiers on Aug 14.

His overseas assignments saw Aide miss out on the S-League and StarHub League Cup matches the Young Lions played during that time.

"I gained a lot by learning from Bernd, and the Young Lions gain when I pass on whatever I have learnt to them," the former national defender said, pointing out that assistant coach S Subramani and the backroom staff are capable of managing the team in his absence.

The FAS also clarified that the Young Lions are very much in its plans, adding that a phased approach is being taken in preparation for various SEA Games campaigns.

"Our focus at present is to prepare and send a strong and competitive team to the 2013 SEA Games," an FAS spokesman said, adding that several players in the current SEA Games squad would still be eligible to play in the 2015 edition.

The SEA Games football competition is an Under-23 affair.

The current Under-23 side will line up against their Indonesian counterparts tomorrow, in a friendly match that is crucial to the team's chances of earning their tickets to this year's Games in Myanmar in December.

But coach V Sundramoorthy could call up only one Young Lions player - Afiq Yunos - for Saturday's match.

That's because until an official postponement last Thursday, the Young Lions were scheduled to play in an S-League fixture against Warriors FC tomorrow night as well.

"The boys have lost out on an opportunity to be selected, and I do feel for them," said Aide, who admitted that more could be done to aid the team's development. 

To that end, the FAS is looking into hiring full-time backroom staff for the Young Lions, who have four members in their team hired on a part-time basis.

Said the FAS spokesman: "We hope to expand the backroom staff set-up for the Young Lions once we secure additional funding and resources."

The Young Lions' former team manager, Asadullah Mohd, had to juggle his responsibilities in FAS' development and planning department as well as handling the administration of the team.

Some pointed to his dual role as a possible explanation for the Young Lions having fielded ineligible players in their first four S-League games.

All four games were awarded as 3-0 wins to their opponents.


"In this specific case, Asadullah was assigned to cover the duties (of a staff who had resigned) during the transition period.

"Following the recruitment of a replacement for that particular position, Asadullah has since returned to his post," said the FAS spokesman.

Assuming the post in mid-February, Asadullah was replaced as team manager on July 1, with Aizat Ramli, formerly with the FAS' communications department, taking over.

The FAS believes that with hard work, the Young Lions will remain on track to win the football SEA Games gold in 2015.

Said the spokesman: "(They) are participating in the S-League as their first phase of preparations for the 2015 SEA Games... they are aware that there is still a lot of hard work ahead and they remain committed to continuous improvement so as to do our nation proud (in 2015).

"We will announce the next phase of preparations in due course."

Work for 2015 must start now

Today, they are the Courts Young Lions earning their stripes in the Great-Eastern-Yeo's S-League.

But in two years' time, they will stand before an adoring capacity crowd at the Republic's shiny new National Stadium, hoping to be crowned champions of the South-east Asia Games.

That was the lofty target set when they were assembled.

But the football fraternity believes that more needs to be done if that target is to be achieved. "Football is very important at every SEA Games because it can rally a nation, and everybody wants the football gold medal," said former Singapore international R Suria Murthi.

"2015 is two years away, but two years is not far away. If we aim to win, then we have to start now - a team isn't built overnight."

The FAS has said that the next phase of development for the Young Lions will be announced "in due course".

Pointing to its administrative issues that saw the club docked points earlier in the season, and most of their players miss out on a chance to take part in tomorrow's under-23 friendly with Indonesia, former Woodlands Wellington coach Shasi Kumar believes not enough is being invested in the team.

"It's clear that the Young Lions are not a priority now, and we cannot have that if we are serious about winning gold," he said.

Malaysia have won the last two SEA Games gold medals, on a platform of consistent development, with teams kept together for long periods and fine-tuned with training stints in Europe.

It is a model that many hope Singapore can emulate.

A lack of sufficient funding and National Service commitments may make such attachments difficult, but Suria insists some basics requirements should be met.

"The head coach should make the team his priority, and should always be present to lead his team," said Suria, in response to Aide Iskandar's absences from Young Lions games due to his work with the senior national team.

"The team behind the team is crucial, and consistency cannot be more emphasised, especially for younger players."

He hoped that lessons have been learnt from the experience with the team that represented Singapore at the inaugural Youth Olympic Games (YOG) in 2010.

Led by Jeffrey Lightfoot, the bronze medal-winning YOG team won the hearts of the nation with their brave performances.

YOG side eligible

They are eligible to play in the 2015 squad, but discipline issues and growing pains have seen several players - now aged 18 - stagnate.

"When Kadir Yahaya (YOG coach) left, the team seemed to have lost their way, and players like Hanafi Akbar were highly rated, but seem to have faded away," said Suria.

Local football observer Tam Cheong Yan called for more attention from the FAS, and perhaps better planned overseas sparring matches for the players charged with winning gold.

"The Young Lions are clearly an important part of our football ecosystem.

"In the past, many players have come through their ranks, the likes of Shahril Ishak and Baihakki Khaizan," he said.

"But clearly, something has changed. I hope the FAS puts more focus on the team.

"How much is genuinely being done for them, we're not sure - and they are supposed to win us gold in 2015."