SINGAPORE - Fairoz Hasan started this year contemplating an early retirement from professional football. As December approaches, he finds himself closer than ever to a different ending - winning his first major trophy.
His team Albirex Niigata lead the Singapore Premier League (SPL) by two points ahead of Tampines Rovers and face the Stags on Sunday (Nov 29) knowing a win will extend that lead to five and leave them on the brink of the championship. After the game at the Jurong East Stadium, both sides will have just two matches left.
Fairoz, who turned 32 on Thursday, is one of eight Singaporeans in Albirex's 26-man squad and has made some telling contributions to the Japanese club's title challenge. He has started seven of the eight games since the league's restart and scored in the 3-2 decisive win over fellow contenders Lion City Sailors on Nov 22.
"To score against a big team and big spenders like the Sailors, it was like scoring against the SPL's Real Madrid," said Fairoz. "To be honest, it's amazing I'm even in this position now and I can't really describe how it feels."
The journeyman midfielder - he started his career in 2008 with the Young Lions before stints at Geylang United, Gombak United and Hougang United - was left in limbo before the start of this season after his former club Warriors FC were ordered to sit out the campaign due to its financial issues.
"The thought of quitting did cross my mind, but ultimately, I did not feel ready to give up yet," said the former national Under-23 player.
He received help from the Football Association of Singapore, which offered him a part-time job and the opportunity to train with the U-22 Young Lions side as he waited and hoped that another club would give him a chance.
He also became a food delivery rider on his motorcycle during the circuit breaker period.
"I had to find a way to put food on the table for my wife and daughter," said Fairoz, whose daughter Lana Arissa is two.
"Throughout, it was not easy to juggle the work while trying to maintain my fitness through running and training with the ball on my own, but I just had to be disciplined."
His perseverance paid off when Albirex contacted him after circuit breaker restrictions were eased in mid-June and SPL teams started training again. After a two-week trial, the White Swans offered him a contract.
"After the first day of training, I went back home and took panadol because my body was aching everywhere and I had a headache," he recalled with a wry smile.
Besides Fairoz, another local in the Albirex team who has had a positive impact recently is Ong Yu En. The 17-year-old scored the opener in Albirex's 2-0 win over Young Lions on Wednesday - it was the teenager's first start in the league and his first goal.
He said: "Going from playing at school and youth level to the SPL was a big jump, but I have to give a lot of credit to all my teammates here, because they have been very supportive towards me."
Albirex head coach Keiji Shigetomi praised the Singapore players for giving their best in every training session and said their tactical understanding has improved "significantly".
He added they have assimilated into his team seamlessly.
"Did you see the celebration of Japanese players at Yu En's goal? That is telling of this team's situation, that all the players work as one unit," said Shigetomi.
He was confident his team can maintain their good run - having won six of their last seven games - against Tampines and capture their fourth league crown after the 2016-18 hat trick.
Fairoz was equally bullish and said: "The team is very united, everyone pushes one another, and we want to finish this journey to the title together."
In this most unpredictable year, a fairy tale is still possible.