EPL fans in a league of their own

Supporters of top clubs battle it out for pride and dignity on Singaporean soil

Under the sweltering mid-afternoon heat, the Manchester derby was played out in front of a noisy crowd.

As the fans belted out time-honoured football chants and hurled abuse from the sidelines, crunching tackles flew in from players decked top-to-toe in club colours.

But the likes of Wayne Rooney or Sergio Aguero - and their jaw-dropping football skills - were nowhere to be seen. And even though the supporters were vociferous, there were only 50 of them around the barren secondary school field in Singapore.

For this was no English Premier League (EPL) match, but the season opener of the Singapore EPL Fan Club League last month.

The players are all registered members of the respective supporters' clubs here and, in the name of fun and friendship, eight teams square off every fortnight in the round-robin 11-a-side competition.

From just four sides in its first season in 2010, the league has grown into a seven-month campaign, with some teams even organising pre-season trials and regular training sessions to gain a competitive edge.

"The tournament was meant to bring Singapore EPL fans together outside of their usual fan club screenings - but it's grown into something more meaningful and exciting than that," said league founder John Hirst, a British expat who has lived in Singapore for more than a decade.

A central committee of volunteers manage fixtures and administrative matters, while teams split the costs of booking pitches and referees.

Bragging rights aside, every club gets a trophy at the end of the season.

The champions, of course, receive the biggest one. And Manchester United's fan club, United for United, have claimed that honour for the past two years, and are again leading the table, winning all three of their matches so far this season.

Fittingly, old rivalries between EPL clubs are also played out among the fan clubs during the course of the league season.

Tempers have been known to flare during matches between fans of north London foes Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur.

"In the days leading up to the big game, we phone each other to discuss tactics and whatever else it takes to beat Spurs," said Arsenal player Shaiful Abdul Rahman.

Everton sometimes struggle to fill their substitutes' bench due to work and family commitments but have no such problems when they face Merseyside rivals Liverpool.

Up to 35 players are allowed in a squad - with rolling substitutions over the 90 minutes - and Everton can fill their quota on derby day.

Said the Toffees captain Miki Khoo: "When the fixtures come out, we circle the dates of the Liverpool matches.

"We're playing for the badge on our chests, so pride and dignity is at stake - this isn't your typical Sunday kickabout."

While the all-out brawls and fisticuffs occasionally associated with amateur football have not occurred in the league, red cards and one-match suspensions have been dished out to those who flout the laws of the game.

Still, when the full-time whistle blows, the animosity ends too.

Teams shake hands and pose for a group picture after every match, a reminder of why the competition was formed in the first place.

The supporters' clubs of West Ham and Aston Villa are expected to join the league next season, while fan clubs from the S-League and other European leagues may be invited in the future.

Organisers also plan to upload match highlights and player interviews so as to gain recognition from their beloved EPL clubs.

Manchester City Singapore supporters' club chairman Haizam Shah said: "We may have different allegiances but at the end of the day, we're all Singaporeans looking for more ways to show our love for the EPL."

nsanjay@sph.com.sg