SINGAPORE – The morning of March 16 is a day Lionel Tan will never forget. The Lion City Sailors centre-back was running errands when he received a surprise call at 9am.
After years of hard work, Tan had finally received his first national team call-up.
The 25-year-old Tan, who made his professional debut with Home United in 2016, told The Straits Times: “It felt like a relief.
“It’s been a while and I’m just grateful that everyone in the team opened their arms and welcomed me, helped me in every possible way.”
Exactly a week later, he made his national debut at the Mong Kok Stadium, where the Lions went up against Hong Kong in an international friendly.
“It was just a short trip and the schedule was pretty tight. We didn’t have exactly tons of time to actually work on set pieces or vary in them.”
Yet what began as a dream debut turned into a bittersweet one.
Tan notched his first international goal from a set piece after 20 minutes, then scored an own goal before the end of the half in the 1-1 draw.
On his first goal, he said: “We were under so much pressure at that moment. So when I scored that goal, I actually did a double take – like did the ball really go in?
“I didn’t know how to feel at that moment. I was just really happy, to be honest. Maybe a little bit of a shock to myself as well, because I haven’t scored for my club for a while.”
Three days later against Macau, Tan made amends for his own goal when he got on the score sheet again, via a corner to secure a 1-0 win for Singapore, which he cheekily described as “completing my hat-trick”.
Now back with the Sailors, he is eager to use this momentum to help them resume their hunt for the Singapore Premier League title. He added: “I’m happy here and I think this is the perfect place for me to grow.”
The Sailors take on leaders Tampines Rovers in a top-of-the-table clash at Our Tampines Hub on Friday.
Sailors head coach Risto Vidakovic said: “Tampines have a big advantage because they played together for a long time with a very good coach. Tactically, they’re strong and have good possession.
“But we have good players to compete at the same level with them.”
Vidakovic will be counting on Tan on Friday, noting: “He is a good example for the young players because he is a hard worker... he is a leader, always willing to learn something new and trying to improve himself.”
Tampines head coach Gavin Lee added: “He (Tan) has always been a threat from set pieces even before he scored twice with the national team. But (assistant coach Mustafic Fahrudin) has already analysed where their most dangerous men will be and I’m sure we will be best prepared.”
Hougang United v Brunei DPMM (Friday, 8.30pm, Jalan Besar)
Reeling from three straight defeats – including one against Young Lions – Hougang United are looking to bounce back. They will face a DPMM side who have struggled to adapt to the league’s intensity. With both tied on three points, neither will want to drop points in what should be an even contest.
Tanjong Pagar United v Young Lions (Saturday, 8.30pm, Jurong East)
In their last outings, Tanjong Pagar United let a 1-0 lead slip in the loss to DPMM while the Young Lions came back to steal a win over Hougang. The Jaguars will see this game as an opportunity to kick-start their season, while their opponents aim to shake off their tag as the league’s whipping boys.
Geylang International v Albirex Niigata (Saturday, 8.30pm, Our Tampines Hub)
Defending champions Albirex Niigata are raring to go after a deflating 1-0 loss to Tampines the last time out, but a stiff examination in Noor Ali’s Geylang International awaits Kazuaki Yoshinaga’s side. The Eagles, still unbeaten at home, are soaring high in third place with the White Swans close behind.
While Albirex should dominate possession, expect Geylang to put up a fight.