SINGAPORE - Exactly a year out from the 2021 SEA Games, the Young Lions delivered a rare win in the Singapore Premier League (SPL) with a show of grit and mental toughness that captain Jacob Mahler hopes will be a springboard for his team.
A late goal by Ryhan Stewart gave them a 2-1 win over Balestier Khalsa, who had defender Fadli Kamis sent off, on Saturday (Nov 21) evening.
It was only the Young Lions' second win in 10 games this season, and the result at the Bishan Stadium also lifted them off the foot of the table.
Their other victory came last month against Tanjong Pagar United, who slipped to the bottom in the table.
Mahler's penalty just before half-time had put the Under-22 outfit ahead but it was short-lived thanks to R Aaravin's equaliser in the 56th minute.
Fadli, who inexplicably handled the ball inside his own box to concede the spot kick, had an evening to forget. He was dismissed for an elbow on Hami Syahin just after the hour.
Young Lions' 16-year-old striker Khairin Nadim later took advantage of a stretched Balestier backline to create the winning goal for Stewart with four minutes to go.
Mahler said the squad are looking forward to the Vietnam Games, scheduled for next Nov 21-Dec 2, and also putting last year's disastrous campaign behind them.
At the 2019 edition in the Philippines, Singapore's U-22 team failed to make the semi-finals after finishing fourth in their six-team group.
Those poor results were compounded by cases of ill-discipline. Nine of the 20-strong squad were fined between $1,000 and $2,000 by the Singapore National Olympic Council for breaking curfews in two separate incidents.
"The last SEA Games was my first one, and we didn't have the best performance and things happened on and off the field, which we as players have to take responsibility for," said Mahler, 20.
"So we're looking forward to next year. We know we're nowhere near the finished product to be able to compete against Thailand or (the region's other top teams) yet, but hopefully we can continue to develop and improve and do something different."
Young Lions coach Nazri Nasir, who could take the reins of the SEA Games team - a head coach has not been formally announced yet - hailed his team's character, particularly after Balestier equalised.
"I always tell the boys that if a mistake happens in the game, move on from it immediately because there's still the rest of the game to play," the former Lions skipper said.
"And this is exactly what they did tonight. The boys showed they learnt from (conceding in the second half in) previous games against Tampines Rovers and Hougang United."
He also praised the "confidence and hunger" his players showed from the first whistle as they harangued and hassled their opponents throughout the 90 minutes.
The loss prolonged Balestier's winless run to four games, and Tigers coach Marko Kraljevic conceded: "We were second best for everything.
"We were thinking slow, closed down their players slow, lost possession very easily, and never got into the flow of the game.
"Why? I'm not sure, but I don't want to speak too much right after the game. We'll look back at this on Monday in training."
Singapore's footballers have not had much joy at the SEA Games - they have never won gold and their last medal, a bronze, came in 2013.
While not many will read too much into the Young Lions 2-1 win against Balestier, nor should they, there is some cause for optimism.
Jacob Mahler, 20, and Irfan Najeeb, 21, were a solid partnership at the back and effectively dealt with Balestier's two import strikers, Shuhei Hoshino and Sime Zuzul while the Stewart brothers Ryhan (20) and Harhys (19) were combative in midfield and hardly stopped running.
But even with an extra man for the last 30 minutes, the Young Lions lacked the guile and killer instinct required to finish their opponents off though midfielder Hami Syahin and forward Khairin showed some promise.
And with the likes of Ikhsan Fandi, Farhan Zulkifli, Shah Shahiran and Joel Chew - they play for other clubs - still eligible for the next Games, this gritty display bodes well for the future.