Football: Fandi Ahmad's Young Lions 'have to keep fighting' to avoid being wooden spoonists

The Young Lions training at the Geylang field on Feb 25, 2019.
The Young Lions training at the Geylang field on Feb 25, 2019.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

After losing key players, he wants team to learn fast and play a positive game

SINGAPORE - The Young Lions are technically Singapore's Under-22 development team but, in reality, the Singapore Premier League (SPL) team are even younger in 2019.

As Fandi Ahmad's team take on Balestier Khalsa in their opening SPL fixture on Saturday (March 2) at the Jalan Besar Stadium, they will have an average age of just 20, with many of them rookies in professional football.

Also, the key players behind their 2018 season have left - Hami Syahin and Taufiq Muqminin both signed for Home United while brothers Irfan (Bangkok Glass, Thailand) and Ikhsan Fandi (Raufoss, Norway) have ventured overseas.

Looking pragmatically at his squad, Fandi feels that last season's creditable seventh-place finish in the nine-team table will be hard to repeat. He said: "Seriously, it will be a very difficult season. I will be very happy if we are not bottom. We just have to keep fighting."

But this is not a gripe from the 56-year-old former national captain. With nine players in the squad born in 2000 and after, he knows the team sorely lack experience.

"I have no complaints. They know the level is very high and I want them to learn fast. They are not used to this level of fitness, they are not used to training at this intensity. We will try to play good, positive football."

But one thing that defines this team is their spirit. As seen during training at Geylang Field on Monday, Fandi and assistant coach S. Subramani drilled the boys' pack mentality, instructing them to press high up the pitch in groups.

 
 
 

Even if this year's cohort is still raw, there are still bright sparks to look out. Attacking midfielder Saifullah Akbar is pacy and creative, Rezza Rezky Ramadhani is a central midfielder with an eye for a through pass while left-back Syahrul Sazali loves to overlap.

Captain Joshua Pereira, 21, said: "It's going to be a tough and long season.

"Apart from the SPL, we have the SEA Games and the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) U-23 Championship qualifiers. It's going to get hectic but we are looking to do well and gain more experience.

"No doubt, it will be tough against all the seasoned SPL players.

"We are a very young team but our team spirit is strong, our fitness is good and we will never stop fighting for each other."

This year's pre-season results have been mixed. While Fandi's team easily brushed aside amateur National Football League sides such as Jungfrau Punggol and Katong, they lost to Malaysia Super League team Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia Premier League side PDRM, among other results.

"Preparation was not the best, it has been difficult to get the whole squad together," he said.

"Many of them have study and NS (national service) commitments, some were taken by other clubs, that's why I am calling up much younger players, who are 17 or 18."

The youngest is Marc Ryan Tan, 17, son of former Lions winger Steven Tan.

And in addition to the SPL, they will fly off to Japan for training and cold-weather acclimatisation next week, ahead of the AFC U-23 Championship qualifiers in Ulaanbaatar from March 22 to 26. The team are drawn in Group G with Hong Kong, North Korea and hosts Mongolia.

In November and December, they will compete at the SEA Games in the Philippines.

And Fandi has called for patience as he begins the tough process of guiding his rookies in their new world of professional football.

He said: "The most important thing is development. After the first few games, the boys will understand the game more. It's a big challenge. Some of them are very raw but I am very happy with their commitment."