Football: Already a winner but Albirex's Yu En, 17, wants to earn his medal

Albirex Niigata midfielder Ong Yu En has a shiny winner's medal at just 17. ST PHOTO: YONG LI XUAN

SINGAPORE - While there are several players here, in the twilight of their careers still chasing their first Singapore Premier League (SPL) title, Albirex Niigata (S) midfielder Ong Yu En has a shiny winner's medal at just 17.

But do not let those without honours in their resume listen to where Yu En has stored his medal - it is tucked away in the corner of a drawer in his room at Simei.

Speaking to The Straits Times ahead of Saturday's (May 15) SPL tie against the Young Lions at the Jurong East Stadium, Yu En insists that he is still thankful for his success. And his explanation gives an insight to his drive for excellence.

Said the business management student in a diploma programme jointly conducted by Singapore Sports School and Republic Polytechnic: "Last year, even though I won the league, I was very frustrated with myself. I didn't get to feature much and I didn't feel like I contributed to it (league win).

"So while I was very grateful to be a league winner, I knew I could do way more than I was able to show last season.

"Even then, I am not someone who really looks at and adores my medals. I'm always eager to move on and go for the next one. The very next day after we won the league last year, I was thinking of what I can do to make sure I can win it again this year while playing a bigger role."

In his debut SPL season last term, he was limited to just 96 minutes of action across Albirex's 14 games.

With just nine games gone in the current campaign, the midfielder has already surpassed that figure, having started six matches, with over 400 minutes of playing time.

SPL rules require the White Swans to have two Singaporeans in their starting line-up and the earliest they can be taken off, is at half-time. But Albirex first-team coach Jaswinder Singh says the statistics show that Yu En is earning his minutes on merit. In his six starts, Yu En was hauled off at half-time just once.

Yu En has an assist to his name this season and has impressed with his energetic displays for the Japanese side in midfield. His performances have also drawn comparisons to the last local to make a big impact while with Albirex - current Lion City Sailors midfielder Adam Swandi, who won the league's Young Player of the Year award while with the White Swans in 2018.

"He is playing at a level where he is matching the Japanese players," said Singh.

"You can see that his teammates trust him with the ball. When he came to us, he was still a small boy...

"He has a very high football IQ and makes the right decisions with his passes and movements. What we want from him now is to ensure he keeps up his form and to be more decisive in the crucial areas of the pitch."

The 1.65m Yu En, who models his game after the similarly diminutive, former Manchester City midfielder David Silva, shared that he worked hard in the gym in the off-season to become physically stronger.

His efforts have paid off as he has been able to brush aside challenges from defenders this season.

He has his eyes set on another challenge now - to make the SEA Games squad this year.

"Each time I represent the country in age-group tournaments when I was younger, it is always a special moment. Of course, it is something I really want but I need to ensure that I keep working hard and showing that I deserve to be selected," he said.

Young Lions head coach Philippe Aw says his side are raring to go as they look to learn from the previous meeting between both sides when Albirex beat the Young Lions 3-0 in March.

Albirex sit atop the eight-team standings, one point ahead of their nearest rivals, Lion City Sailors, while the Young Lions are bottom, still chasing their first win of the season.

When asked what his boys had learned from the previous loss, he said: "The Albirex players' attitude towards and willingness to attack and defend as a team is something we can learn from. We need to have good ball retention and when we don't have it, we have to defend well as a team.

"Our boys are determined to take the game to them, so much so that despite given a day off for Hari Raya, they requested to train."

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