Football: SEA Games a priority for Hesse's young guns

Young Lions coach Patrick Hesse giving instructions to Joshua Pereira (front) during a training session yesterday. The Young Lions, who are sitting bottom of the S-League table, will face sixth-placed Hougang United tonight at the Jalan Besar Stadium
Young Lions coach Patrick Hesse giving instructions to Joshua Pereira (front) during a training session yesterday. The Young Lions, who are sitting bottom of the S-League table, will face sixth-placed Hougang United tonight at the Jalan Besar Stadium.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

With only four S-League matches to go, the Garena Young Lions sit bottom of the nine-team table on nine points and are almost certain to stay there when the season ends as they trail eighth-placed Balestier Khalsa by six points.

This year has seen the squad, the country's developmental team slated to compete in next year's SEA Games, score only 17 goals and concede 55 - the worst goal difference in the league.

To make matters worse, the Young Lions also went on a 10-match losing run mid-season.

But when they host sixth-placed Hougang United tonight at the Jalan Besar Stadium, coach Patrick Hesse is "pleased" with how his young footballers have "progressed tremendously" this season.

The Frenchman said: "Many of them had never played professional football before this season, and for such a young team, the performances have been encouraging.

"It has not been easy at all, but I am proud of the team. The players never give up - even if we concede first, the players don't let their heads drop and they keep on trying.

"Now we have another year to prepare for the SEA Games. If they continue to work with the same mindset, they will definitely be better professionally, both on and off the field, and will be able to give a good account of Singapore football."

Since their inception in 2003 when they finished last out of 12 teams, the Young Lions - consisting mostly players aged 23 and below - have been wooden spoonists on only one other occasion. That was three years ago in a 12-team table.

But they have had good campaigns too, finished third twice (in 2004 and 2006). Back then, the team had the likes of Shahril Ishak, Baihakki Khaizan and Khairul Amri - all of whom were already Singapore internationals and went on to earn more than 100 caps each.

Although no one from the current squad has been able to break into the national team yet, Young Lions midfielder Joshua Pereira and his team-mates will first look to establish themselves as part of next year's SEA Games side.

The Under-21 international said: "Nobody is guaranteed a spot in the squad. All of us are working hard, putting in extra work, and preparing for next year's SEA Games.

"This season has been a steep learning curve but one that we have all benefited from.

"However there is still room for improvement in all aspects of our play. Most importantly, we have to learn how to play and keep the ball under pressure."

Pereira also added: "Every match is tough for us, but that is good for us because that's how we will learn more. Hougang are no different - they are a tough team to face, but we just have to be mentally focused and physically prepared."

In yesterday's matches, league leaders Albirex Niigata stretched their lead at the top to seven points when they beat fifth-placed Geylang International 1-0 while Balestier held seventh-placed Warriors 1-1.

YOUNG LIONS V HOUGANG

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 23, 2016, with the headline 'SEA Games a priority for Hesse's young guns'. Print Edition | Subscribe