Football: Good chance for U-23 footballers to step up

Saifullah Akbar's Tampines team-mates celebrating with him after the then 17-year-old scored in a Singapore Cup match last year. He is glad for the new rule that S-League clubs must start with at least three Under-23 players in each game, so that you
Saifullah Akbar's Tampines team-mates celebrating with him after the then 17-year-old scored in a Singapore Cup match last year. He is glad for the new rule that S-League clubs must start with at least three Under-23 players in each game, so that youngsters can gain confidence with experience.THE NEW PAPER FILE PHOTO

It was 1996 and a scrawny 20-year-old Noor Ali stood next to former Singapore international Malek Awab, with butterflies in his stomach, as he waited to start his first S-League game with Tampines Rovers.

From a young unknown, Noor went on to win the inaugural Tiger Cup with Singapore, three S-League titles and two Singapore Cups before he hung up his boots.

Now coach of Geylang International, he believes that his time as a youngster playing alongside the likes of Malek, Rafi Ali and Terry Pathmanathan set him on a path to glory as footballer. And he has hailed the Football Association of Singapore's (FAS) move that will see S-League clubs field at least three players aged below 23 in their starting XI from next year.

"It will take time before the league becomes entertaining, but we all started as unknowns, and we had to learn. I personally learnt from some of the best players we had, and that helped me," he said.

"There is talent in Singapore, and I think fans will be surprised by the talent that will come on show because of this move."

Youngsters applauded the move that will give them a shot to show just what they have got in the league.

"This gives a chance for youngsters to play in the top flight. It's something we didn't get very much in these past few years. And experience is what we need to gain confidence and get better," said Tampines Rovers midfielder Saifullah Akbar, 18, who has previously attracted the attention of A-League side Newcastle Jets.

Like Saifullah, Fariz Faizal, 21, has broken into the senior side of his team, and he warned the youngsters of the challenges ahead.

"It is a big step-up to the S-League. The game is faster, and there is a lot more pressure than playing with players in your own age group," said the Balestier Khalsa player. "I'm thankful that Balestier give opportunities to younger players, but I struggled to cope when I first played. I had to adapt and get better."

Some feel the young ones should earn their place in the team, and not have it handed to them on a silver platter.

Former Tampines Prime League player Mulhelmy Suhaimi, 21, said: "Coaches do give chances to young players already."

"I think we have to step up and fight to show that we deserve a spot in the team. Some players don't do that," added full-time national serviceman Mulhelmy, who still welcomed the move.

Most believe that time training with senior players is what will help youngsters get better, but others argue that it will merely prop up poor quality footballers who have been failed by a broken youth system.

"I feel that coaches and training sessions are good, but players are not taught how to take care of themselves well, how to be a real professional," said former National Football Academy defender Lionel Tan, 20, now an Hougang United defender.

"You have to be professional and take things seriously - some players have tons of talent, but don't get better, and I think it's because of poor discipline. I hope youngsters take care of themselves and grab this opportunity."

Noor, who is assembling a young squad at Geylang, is excited about the 2018 season.

"Coaches need to trust young players and guide them carefully - not haul them off quickly if things don't work," he said.

"But mark my words, it will be an interesting and exciting season."

Shamir Osman

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 16, 2017, with the headline 'Good chance for U-23s to step up'. Print Edition | Subscribe