Football: Safety-first gambit still the strategy for Sundram

National coach V. Sundram Moorthy during a training session on Friday. He has called up four uncapped players for the games against Myanmar, Chinese Taipei and Argentina.
National coach V. Sundram Moorthy during a training session on Friday. He has called up four uncapped players for the games against Myanmar, Chinese Taipei and Argentina.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Defence remains Sundram's focus, despite his wish to use new players

First of all, it is V. Sundram Moorthy. Not Sundramoorthy as Singaporeans, opponents, Wikipedia and Planet Football know him.

The man himself is not bothered about that missing space and letter 'M' in his name since his Lions debut in 1983 as an 18-year-old. Similarly, when he was finally given his dream job on May 27 last year, the new role came with a restrictive job title.

Caretaker national coach, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) named him. It was a title that suggested that perhaps, there was not enough faith that he could have the job permanently.

"The tag... it doesn't matter. The most important thing (about it) is that I got the job of leading the team," Sundram insisted, as he met The Sunday Times for tea on Friday evening at the Kallang Wave Mall.

"It was a challenge (reviving the team after the struggles under his predecessor Bernd Stange) but I had always believed things would get better."

And neither did his name, mis-spelt by the media over the decades, bother him.

"It's really ok, lah. There are more important things in life," he said with a smile.

One year on, that C-word has been removed. Although results have been mixed, the Lions' last performance, a 0-0 Asian Cup third-round qualifier away draw against Bahrain in March, had the squad believing that a top-two finish in Group E to reach the 2019 finals in the United Arab Emirates is indeed possible. Turkmenistan and Chinese Taipei are the other teams in the group.

Apart from playing in the 1984 edition as hosts, Singapore have never qualified directly for the continental showpiece.

  • In the eyes of others

  • SHAHRIL ISHAK

    The Singapore captain says: "Coach is methodical, we talk about the decisions we make (during a match) when we watch the videos. If anything is wrong, we can discuss and he is someone who listens to players.

    "He is very strict when we are training, especially with the formation that he wants us to play, but it's because he wants the players to do well. He is a friendly guy, on and off the field and if there are any problems, we can talk."

    A. THIYAGA RAJU

    The 56-year-old fraud control analyst with Standard Chartered Bank and friend of Sundram's since 1991 says: "He flew all the way down from Kuantan in Pahang to Temasek Junior College in Singapore when I organised a testimonial match for (ex-Singapore captain) Terry Pathmanathan in 1992. I was so touched.

    "Last December, I paid a late-night surprise visit to his residence in the east on my way to work. Despite the ungodly hour, he gave me the royal treatment by serving me drinks and even drove me to work. I really felt honoured to be chauffeured by The Dazzler.

    HASSAN SUNNY

    The Singapore goalkeeper says: "Coach is very positive and also very result-oriented. He is very soft-spoken off the field and friendly. I have to admit, his training sessions are tough. But if he didn't push us, we would suffer in international matches.

    "It's all about results; if you don't win, you don't go up the Fifa rankings."

    KHAIRUL NIZAM

    The Singapore forward says: "I think Sundram is a good coach, I can learn a lot from him because he used to be an attacking player.

    "The training sessions are tough. We are trained to think fast. I understand why he would do that because when we play big teams, we really have no time to think."

The FAS is similarly convinced, awarding the 51-year-old a two-year contract extension in April. Sundram said: "Given ample time to do my job, we will do well in the Asian Cup."

But he has his detractors. At last November's Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup, the Lions could only muster one draw and two defeats, scoring just once, as the four-time champions tumbled out in the group stage.

The style of football, with an unusual backline of six defenders, was hard for fans to stomach. In his 13 matches in charge, the team has scored just six times.

Flamboyant and creative as a forward, Sundram is pragmatic and defensive as a coach. Hailed as the King Cobra during his playing days with the defunct S-League club Jurong FC (nicknamed the Cobras), he turns into a boa constrictor once he is armed with a clipboard, whistle and stopwatch.

But he does not gripe in the face of criticism and explains he has his reasons for the safety-first approach: "We have to play to our strengths and be tactically clever. How your pizza tastes depends on your ingredients.

"I expected a tough job. You look at all the national teams (around South-east Asia), Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines; they have all improved. These were the whipping boys when I was a player.

"Football has changed so much. These days, you have sports science, video analysis, heart-rate monitors, software to create training routines. I had none of these things as a player.

"The speed of the modern game is faster, you are closed down so much faster, it is rare to see someone dribble past three or four guys like how (Diego) Maradona or (Johan) Cruyff used to."

While the Lions will continue to play solid but not spectacular football, the two-year deal also means that he has to look further ahead.

For this week's closed-door warm-up against Myanmar (Tuesday), Asian Cup qualifier against Chinese Taipei (Saturday) and the glamour friendly against Argentina (June 13), Sundram has called up four uncapped players, including Garena Young Lions midfielders Hami Syahin Said, 18, and Muhaimin Suhaimi, 22.

  • SUNDRAM'S RECORD AS NATIONAL COACH: P13 W2 D3 L8 GF6 GA17


  • MYANMAR 1-0


    VIETNAM 0-3


    CAMBODIA 1-2


    BAHRAIN 1-3


    MALAYSIA 0-0


    HONG KONG 0-2


    SYRIA 0-2


    CAMBODIA 1-0


    PHILIPPINES 0-0


    THAILAND 0-1


    INDONESIA 1-2


    AFGHANISTAN 1-2


    BAHRAIN 0-0

Part of his job is also to make tough decisions and he started the rejuvenation of an ageing team by dropping 129-cap defender Baihakki Khaizan, 33. Key players like skipper Shahril Ishak (33), midfielder Fahrudin Mustafic (36), defender Daniel Bennett (39) and forward Khairul Amri (32) are also all in the twilight of their careers.

"Gradually, I will introduce new players to understudy the seniors and eventually, take over them," Sundram said.

"And we definitely need some foreign talent to boost the team. Thailand have a couple (Swiss-born midfielder Charyl Chappuis and French-born full-back Tristan Do), even Germany are using players like Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira, whose parents were born overseas (Turkey and Tunisia respectively).

"If the Germans are doing it, how about us?"

Although Sundram declined to name who he hopes to naturalise, it is believed that he is keen to add Home United's Korean midfielder Song Ui Yong and Warriors FC duo Jordan Webb (Canada) and Kento Fukuda (Japan) to the Lions' ranks.

He does not say it, but Sundram's words hint that he is trying his best with the assets available to him.

But the Kallang Roar was fostered on a diet of players with signature skills; Dollah Kassim had his feints, Quah Kim Song scored diving headers, Fandi Ahmad volleyed home scissors kicks while Sundram scored arguably the greatest goal seen at the National Stadium with that bicycle kick against Brunei in 1993.

But there was a time when he was more cavalier. Sundram broke into a smile as he recalled his old Jurong side that had Joselito da Silva, Dalis Supait, Itimi Dickson, Park Tae Won, men who charged forward with abandon alongside their then player-coach.

International football though, is not the time to take risks.

Sundram pondered aloud: "Depending on the opponent, I can play an open game. But the results always comes first for the national team."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 04, 2017, with the headline 'Safety-first gambit still the strategy'. Print Edition | Subscribe