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Football: ST speaks to fans of less popular EPL clubs in Singapore

Last season was one for the underdogs in the English Premier League as unfancied Leicester City romped to the title. The Straits Times speaks to supporters of less popular EPL clubs in Singapore to learn their hopes and dreams for the 2016-2017 season.

While most Singaporeans are at home or at a watering hole to watch the English Premier League (EPL) matches on television, security guard Santhia Palani is usually on night duty at a guard post in a private apartment complex in Somerset.

While the 53-year-old is on the lookout for trespassers or anything unusual, his ears are also on high alert for updates on the BBC World Service live radio coverage.

Not even a 4-1 hammering by Manchester United over the weekend could dampen his enthusiasm. "We lost, but I didn't feel anything," he said.

It was in the same guard post that he cried when he heard that Leicester had won their first top-flight title in May.

He has followed his beloved Foxes for 41 years, including the 24 seasons when they were playing in the lower divisions, including the third tier for one season in 2008-09.

  • Fan clubs

  • LEICESTER CITY (unofficial)

    MEMBERS: 13

    GATHERING PLACE: Hannibal Singapore European Grill & Bar - 80 Mohamed Sultan Road #01-03/04

    CONTACT: Martin Runshaug (9846-2622)


    MIDDLESBROUGH

    MEMBERS: 50

    GATHERING PLACE: Boomarang Bistro & Bar Singapore - 60 Robertson Quay, #01-15 The Quayside

    CONTACT: ariff.mfcsg@gmail.com


    CRYSTAL PALACE (unofficial)

    MEMBERS: 30

    GATHERING PLACE: Hannibal Singapore European Grill & Bar

    CONTACT: Martin "Lucky" Davis (9765-5541)


    WEST HAM UNITED

    MEMBERS: 150

    GATHERING PLACE: Uncabunca - 80 Mohamed Sultan Road #01-05

    CONTACT: Ahmad Farris (9633-5610)

Palani, who works 12-hour overnight shifts six days a week, said he used to have an antenna to receive signals for Indonesian TV channels, which showed live matches.

He said: "Often, it was difficult to find their jerseys or to watch them play, because they would drop to Division One (the second tier then) and were almost bankrupt too."

His devotion to the club began because he was drawn to one player, former goalkeeper Mark Wallington, who played 412 games for Leicester from 1971 to 1985.

MORE PAIN THAN GAIN

Often, it was difficult to find their jerseys or to watch them play, because they would drop to Division One (the second tier then) and were almost bankrupt too.

SANTHIA PALANI, a die-hard Leicester City fan, whose only club jersey was bought at Queensway Shopping Centre around 10 years ago.

Last season, he was misunderstood by some as a glory hunter when he posted pictures of himself wearing a Leicester jersey on Facebook.

But he was quick to point out that his only jersey was bought at Queensway Shopping Centre about 10 years ago.

Said Palani, whose wife supports Tottenham Hotspur: "People were criticising me and saying that I just started to follow them because they were winning. But when I pointed out that I was wearing an old Walkers jersey (potato chip and snack foods maker Walkers was the club's former sponsor), then they believed that I am actually a long-time supporter."

Having supported the club through thick and thin for more than four decades, Palani's allegiance to the reigning champions is not merely determined by the team's results.

RARE THRILLS

We might not win many trophies or have a good position in the league. But when we trip up clubs like Manchester City and Arsenal, we get a kick from that too.

AHMAD FARRIS, a Hammer for the past two decades, on the excitement of putting one over the leading sides.

He said: "Some of my friends have said that maybe Leicester would get relegated this season. It's not a new scenario.

"It has happened many times before. We have played in the Championship, League One, we have been relegated before and come back up. So it's nothing new to us."

Like Palani, Ariff Ahmad is among a minority of Singaporeans who support less popular EPL clubs. He has been a die-hard Middlesbrough fan since 1994.

But it was not always this way. The 41-year-old was initially a Manchester United fan but swopped the Red Devils for the red of Boro over 20 years ago.

He explained: "Growing up, I was a United fan because I loved the captain, Bryan Robson. When he made the switch to Boro in 1994 to become our player-manager, I still supported him.

"I also became passionate about Middlesbrough. I realised then what it meant to be behind a football club.

"It's easy for anyone to support the top teams who will always win trophies but it takes a whole other level of passion to back a smaller club - it's much more meaningful."

The Malaysia-born senior IT officer, who moved to Singapore in 2000, set up the official Middlesbrough Singapore Supporters Club 12 years ago. The 50-strong fan club - a mix of locals and Teessiders - gathered at the Boomarang Bistro & Bar earlier this month to watch the newly promoted side play - something that was always difficult for them to do in the past.

"The team were in the (Football League) Championship for the last few years and those matches weren't always on TV. This year, we're all very happy that we can get together and enjoy seeing Boro play live as a proper fan club," said Ariff.

At nearby Hannibal, 33-year-old Crystal Palace fan Andrew Fong will watch the club he has supported for 24 years.

Fong moved to the town of Dartford in England in 1992 and that was when he developed a fondness for the London club. Even when he came back to Singapore in 2001, his passion for the club remained strong.

The financial adviser, who travelled to Wembley Stadium to watch the Eagles in May's FA Cup final, said: "Hopefully, this season will be a good one for us. I'm expecting a top-10 finish and I'm quite happy with the squad we have, but hopefully the recent signing of (Christian) Benteke will bolster us."

Though they are aware that their favourite teams might not eventually be genuine title contenders, they are still thrilled whenever they manage to upset a top side.

Ahmad Farris, 34, a West Ham supporter since 1996, said: "We might not win many trophies or have a good position in the league. But when we trip up clubs like Manchester City and Arsenal, we get a kick from that too."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 26, 2016, with the headline 'Big hearts needed to support small sides'. Print Edition | Subscribe