S-League player of year likely to get nod as Lion's first-choice goalkeeper

The joke going around local football circles is that it is hard for Hassan Sunny to get a tan as he has been in the shadows for so long. Not any more.

Having battled back from two career-threatening injuries, the 30-year-old is favourite to be Singapore's first-choice goalkeeper as the Lions begin their ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup defence on Sunday with a Group B opener against Thailand.

"Personally, it's been a good year for me and I now want to end it on a high note by getting a chance to start hopefully," the Warriors FC custodian said.

"More importantly, I want to make up for all that I've lost out on over the last three years."

Voted this season's S-League Player of the Year, the first goalkeeper to earn the honour, Hassan's safe hands have won him a fan in national coach Bernd Stange.

The German said: "I'm proud to have Hassan, who deserves the S-League Player of the Year award, in the team.

"On the pitch, Hassan is amazing with his reflexes and he is a leader who can guide the younger players like how he did at the Asian Games in Incheon."

But Hassan's ascent has been a difficult one. Since his international debut against India in 2004, he had been involved in four AFF Cup squads.

In the 2004, 2007 and 2008 campaigns, he was second choice behind Lionel Lewis.

When he earned a starting place for the 2010 edition, the luckless Hassan could not prevent the Lions from crashing out in the group stage.

A year later, with Lewis retired from international football, Hassan tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee while playing for Tampines Rovers.

On his comeback, he ruptured the same ligament again and was sidelined for the 2012 tournament, which the Lions won.

"I rushed back from that injury because I needed to take advantage of the fact that Lionel was no longer around and the goalkeeping spot in the 2012 AFF Cup squad was up for grabs," recalled Hassan.

"As a goalkeeper, you have to take every opportunity that comes your way because there are not many around."

But instead of waving a white flag, he saw those months out as a red rag waved at a raging bull.

For 18 months, he hit the gym daily to rebuild his knee. Admitting a weakness for junk food, he gave up burgers and fried chicken to cleanse his body.

Days off were spent going on long runs at East Coast Park to regain his gait and fitness.

"It was a difficult time. I broke down in tears a few times because of how difficult the journey was but my wife was always there to encourage me and that got me through it," Hassan said.

"When they (the Lions) went on to win the tournament (2012 AFF Cup), it hurt me even more as I knew I should be part of the team. "It was then that I told myself that I needed to come back from the injury and be stronger than before."

Fully recovered and with the Player of the Year award in his cabinet, the Lions custodian is riding high and says he is in the form of his life.

"This is to prove to the doubters who didn't believe I could make it back to the top," he noted.

"Also, some people are still asking me up till now where I disappeared to over the past few years, not believing that I was out injured for so long.

"This will be a good time to formally announce I'm back, hopefully with a winner's medal around my neck as well."

While he may not get a tan at the National Stadium at night, the floodlights will do nicely.


This article was first published on Nov 19, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.