The day has barely broken, when Lambri Moondari's ritual begins.
Over and over, he paces the width of the Hougang Stadium pitch, covering every blade of grass like a tireless, all-action midfielder.
However, he is no professional footballer.
For Lambri, the man behind what is widely regarded to be the best playing surface that the Great Eastern-Yeo's S-League has to offer, is a groundsman.
And the rising sun is simply the start of another day on the job.
For the past 27 years, the 62-year-old has walked the same Hougang pitch, six days a week, ferreting out stones and filling divots with soil.
It is a painstaking process - one which begins when dawn is still peeking over the surrounding flats, and ends almost four hours later, under the scorching mid-day heat.
"Used to it already lah," he says of the hours working under the merciless sun, which have left his face freckled and leathery.
Indeed, little about the job can faze the father of three, who started out as a grass cutter at Farrer Park field in 1971.
"I love football, so I decided that I wanted to work in a sport centre," recalls Lambri, who counts Arshad Khamis, Samad Allapitchay, Quah Kim Song and the late Dollah Kassim among his idols.
His eyes sparkle as he rattles off these names - local legends who united a nation and inspired a generation.
That sparkle quickly gives way to wistfulness. They do not make heroes like them any more, he says.
While that golden generation of footballers faded, Lambri continues to tend to the pitches - from Farrer Park to Queenstown Stadium from 1977 to 1986 and Hougang Stadium after that.
While the Singapore Sports Council employee has now left the grass trimming to a contractor, his dedication in maintaining the stadium has caught the eyes of S-League veterans, such as Rezal Hassan, goalkeeper coach of Hougang United, who currently occupy the ground.
Until he joined the Cheetahs at the start of this year, the 39-year-old had played in every season of the league since its inception in 1996.
He says: "In all these years, I played in so many different stadiums. In terms of maintenance, the Hougang Stadium pitch is the best."
These compliments speak volumes of the work that the man, whom players affectionately call Uncle Lambri, has done over the years.
"The pitch changes day by day - it is never the same," he says, as he lists the two greatest banes in the life of a groundsman.
First is fixture congestion, as it leaves insufficient time to repair the wear and tear on the pitch.
Rain is the other.
If too much rain falls, the waterlogged pitch will end up looking like, in Lambri's own words, bubur kacang - a dessert whose name directly translates to bean porridge.
"It is a never-ending process and there are difficulties," he acknowledges.
"But over time, I've learnt to manage. Getting the pitch ready for the next game is a challenge that I love."
Indeed, for all the work that he puts in between matches, it is on game days like tomorrow, when Home United visit, that Lambri relishes.
"I love it when we host matches," he gushes. "I enjoy the pressure, the excitement of the roar in the stands. It is one of the main reasons why I continue to work as a groundsman."
Make no mistake, his game day will be a long one.
By the time Lambri accompanies the match commissioner on the customary pitch inspection in the evening, he will have been at the ground for more than 12 hours.
He will have spent the usual four hours checking the condition of the field in the morning.
He will also have made sure that the floodlights and electronic scoreboard are operational.
That's not all. He also touches up the line markings on the field, applying white paint - by hand - on the canvas of green.
Lambri's final role - from opening whistle to last - will be that of a football fan. When Hougang United win, he goes home happy.
Why? "When the team win, I feel like I've done my part," he says.
This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 28, 2013
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