Football: National coach V Sundram Moorthy goes for blend of youth and experience

Sundram hands surprise call-up to Fulham teenager Ben and recalls veteran Baihakki

Ben Davis in action during a Fulham Under-18 match against Chelsea. He has already played for Singapore's U-19 team.
Ben Davis in action during a Fulham Under-18 match against Chelsea. He has already played for Singapore's U-19 team.PHOTO: FULHAM FC

Wearing the No. 10 shirt for English Championship side Fulham's Under-18 team, Ben Davis was thrust into an attacking midfield role behind lone forward Timmy Abraham in a match against West Ham's U-18s last December.

The 17-year-old Singaporean, who can play as a midfielder or as a forward, proved he has what it takes to mix it up with England's best youngsters with a 57th-minute goal in a 2-2 draw.

His passing ability and eye for goals are what convinced national football coach V. Sundram Moorthy to hand him a surprise national call-up in his 24-man squad - the first of 2018 - announced yesterday.

Sundram is rebuilding his team with a blend of youth and experience after a failed Asian Cup qualification campaign.

The Lions, on a 13-match winless run with only seven goals scored, face the Maldives in a friendly on March 23, before taking on the Chinese Taipei in a dead-rubber Asian Cup Group E fixture four days later.

"We've been keeping track of his progress at Fulham, including videos of his games and statistics, and we want to take a closer look at him in training sessions with the senior national team," Sundram said of Ben, who earned a two-year academy scholarship with Fulham last July.



    Hassan Sunny, Izwan Mahbud, Zaiful Nizam


    Baihakki Khaizan, Shakir Hamzah, Nazrul Nazari, Irfan Fandi, Emmeric Ong, Anders Aplin


    Hariss Harun, Safuwan Baharudin, Shahdan Sulaiman, Hafiz Abu Sujad, Zulfahmi Arifin, Izzdin Shafiq, Yasir Hanapi, M. Anumanthan


    Khairul Amri, Faris Ramli, Adam Swandi, Shawal Anuar, Ikhsan Fandi (on standby), Iqbal Hamid Hussain, Ben Davis.

"He is a prospect for the future, but I'm confident he can blend in well with the senior boys.

"It's important to have a good balance of youth and experience in the national team, so that senior players can guide the younger ones and show them what is required for football at the international level."

The 1.72m Ben, who has already turned out for the national Under-19 side, is looking forward to the experience.

"It's been a great learning experience to play at the highest youth level in England with and against top players and under a top-class coach (Steve Wigley)," said Ben.

"The technical and tactical experience and learning at the academy through the training sessions have been great and I am learning all the time. I am excited and a little nervous to train with and play in the national set-up."

He will return to Singapore next Monday and start training with the Lions on Tuesday. Sundram is confident that he will fit in well with guidance from experienced players such as Baihakki Khaizan, another surprise inclusion in the Lions' squad.

The defender, who has impressed Sundram with his performances for Thai second division club Udon Thani, was told by the national coach last February that he was not part of his plans for the Asian Cup qualifiers.

"I thought that football was a dead end for me, but I told myself that 2018 will be the year that I pick myself up," said the 34-year-old, who has not played for the Lions since their failed 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup campaign.

The national team's main assignment this year is the year-end Suzuki Cup, and Baihakki has vowed to give his all to turn around the Lions' fortunes.

"Like me, the national team also want a fresh start this year, and I'm more than willing to contribute however I can. I'm thankful to be included - I'll take whatever role that's asked of me," he said.

Baihakki and Ben are not the only surprises in Sundram's squad.

Playmaker Adam Swandi, representing S-League champions Albirex Niigata this season, is back in the Lions squad for the first time since August 2015.

But there was no place for the veteran trio of defender Daniel Bennett, midfielder Mustafic Fahrudin and forward-cum-skipper Shahril Ishak, who combine for 361 caps.

Sundram hinted that there could be more changes in the future.

"The new S-League will see the introduction of more young players, and I'm looking forward to seeing them in action, because this means that more players have a chance to try and prove that they are good enough for the national team," he said. "We have to bring in more younger players with a view to the Suzuki Cup and beyond."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2018, with the headline 'Blend of youth and experience'. Subscribe