SINGAPORE - "Just like a library, just like a library", sang the Hougang Hools as the Singapore Premier League resumed on Saturday (Oct 17) with two games at Our Tampines Hub and Jurong East Stadium.
While fans were not allowed into the stadiums for the return of Singapore's only professional sports league, it was far from quiet as Tampines Rovers hosted Hougang United after Covid-19 forced the league to be suspended on March 24.
A handful of fans from Tampines and Hougang and pockets of curious spectators stood at various vantage points – such as the fifth-floor jogging track and the library on the second storey – within the integrated community and lifestyle hub to watch the game, though some were seen not observing safe distancing practices.
With the SPL the first sports league to restart here, strict protocols were in place to ensure the safety of all involved.
Teams were confined to their respective changing rooms after reporting two hours before kickoff, and both sets of players made staggered entrances and exits onto the pitch with no handshakes allowed. Substitutes did not sit in the dugout but in the stands and there was no stadium announcer nor ball boys.
All 223 local-based players and match officials tested negative for Covid-19 on Oct 4 and swab tests will be conducted every two weeks.
The number of substitutions for teams has been increased from three to five, a maximum of three substitution windows allowed during the first and second halves, and mandatory water breaks introduced in all matches.
Edwin Tong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth was an observer at the game and felt the measures were sufficient and well-followed. Also present at the game were Sport Singapore chief executive officer Lim Teck Yin and Football Association of Singapore president Lim Kia Tong.
Tong said: "Individual discipline is crucial, and every player, official, and ground staff needs to be conscious of safe distancing and personal hygiene. This would give us confidence to see it through to the end of the season."
The return to football action was competitive and intriguing as Hougang ended a 10-game winless streak against Tampines since 2016 to win 2-1, thanks to first-half strikes from Sahil Suhaimi and Farhan Zulkifli that rendered Irwan Shah's 60th-minute header a mere consolation.
Despite the defeat, Tampines remain top with nine points from five games, while Hougang are up to third, two points back but with a game in hand.
The Stags entered the game as favourites after beating Balestier Khalsa, Tanjong Pagar United and big-money Lion City Sailors before the break but were missing attacker Zehrudin Mehmedovic through suspected dengue fever.
Farhan, still only 17, was a menace from the first whistle, while Tampines' Jordan Webb also looked lively early on.
The tackles also flew in fast and furious, with Hougang's M. Anumanthan and Sahil suffering knee injuries after colliding with Tampines' Daniel Bennett.
Despite being out of competitive action for over six months, the teams held up well with passes and touches becoming sloppy only in the last 10 minutes, as Hougang midfielder Charlie Machell was the first to succumb to cramp in the 83rd minute.
While the visitors made use of all five substitutions, Tampines coach Gavin Lee made just three subs and watched in despair as his side missed two gilt-edged opportunities to score in added time.
Lee said: I'm disappointed with the result but not with the fitness levels and efforts of his players. Our players are more than ready. Even at the end, we were focused not on the score but on creating opportunities. We did that, but just could not finish."
Hougang coach Clement Teo added: "Without a proper preseason, I expected injuries. But this is where depth and rotation comes in, and we have the capabilities to deal with that."
After completing the full 90 minutes, Hougang defender Lionel Tan acknowledged the physical and mental exertions of playing a first competitive match in more than six months.
The 23-year-old said: "We didn't play any friendlies before restarting so we are definitely not in tip-top condition. It was tough also because Tampines kept coming at us, but we coped well as a unit.
"The introduction of two water breaks in the middle of each half is good for us to quench our thirst and curb our urge to spit. Our coaches could also use that to give us some advice if necessary.
"I felt the set-up today was perfect and there was no disruption. The fans turning up was a bonus and as long as they observe safe-distancing measures, we really appreciate their support."
The other SPL match on Saturday also went on without a hitch as Balestier Khalsa beat Tanjong Pagar United 1-0 at Jurong East Stadium to climb to second on eight points, while the Jaguars remain seventh with two points.
Hougang's win over Tampines throws the SPL race wide open in an abbreviated season of two rounds instead of the usual three rounds, and we may well see a new winner represent Singapore in next season's AFC Champions League.
Underdogs such as Balestier, Hougang, Geylang International could upset the established order of Brunei DPMM, Tampines and Albirex Niigata, while the Sailors, still searching for their first win, will also be boosted by this result.
The Cheetahs' shrewd use of pace and wing play with a five-man defence could provide other teams the template to play against the Stags, who looked vulnerable on the flanks.
The presence of fans and bystanders at Our Tampines Hub was heartening as it showed there is interest in the SPL and live sports in general. With large cinema halls with more than 300 seats allowed to admit up to 150 patrons in three zones of 50 within the confined space, perhaps the authorities can consider the same for SPL matches.
However, all these are contingent on the fortnightly SPL swab tests returning negative. Like any good defence, a clean sheet in this area is crucial for the successful completion of this SPL season.