Football: Tampines’ young guns can dream big with strong parental support

Tampines Rovers midfielder Caelan Cheong made his Singapore Premier League debut in 2022 at the age of 16. PHOTO: TAMPINES ROVERS

SINGAPORE – Four months ago, Tampines Rovers’ youth footballer Caelan Cheong performed well enough in his O levels to get into junior college.

But, instead of making sure that Caelan focuses only on his studies to get into a top university, his father Clive, 49, is not averse to him pursuing football as a profession.

Clive, a director of a used car company, said: “We always listen to what Caelan has to say. He has his own set of opinions and what we do is to give him our point of view and advice.

“In the past, my parents never gave me that kind of opportunity (to turn professional).

“Now that my kid has the passion and as parents we are able to support them, I think as long as he can manage his studies and football well, we can’t ask for more.”

Clive and his wife let Caelan decide whether to focus on his O-level revisions or answer a national call-up for last October’s Under-17 Asian Cup qualifiers in Bangladesh, which took place just before his exams.

Caelan eventually chose to prepare for his O levels fully and called it a “huge disappointment” having to skip the tournament.

But it paid off when he recorded a commendable nine points for his L1R5 score, which helped him get into Anglo-Chinese Junior College.

Said the 17-year-old: “It is still very hard to balance studies and football. It’s two things I’m very passionate about at the same time.

“When exams are coming, I try to focus on my studies more and when football matches are coming, I focus more on my training.”

Having passed his O levels with flying colours, the attacking midfielder will be hoping that his fledgling football career can take flight after making his Singapore Premier League bow last season.

He made a 13-minute cameo off the bench in Tampines’ 7-0 rout of the Young Lions in September to become the seventh-youngest debutant in the league’s history.

He is not the only young Stag hoping to prove his worth this season.

Midfielder Ong Yu En, 19, is starting his second season on a youth contract with the Stags, while Joel Chew and Glenn Kweh, both 22, are now on professional terms.

Chew, a midfielder, is in the second season of his five-year contract, having returned from the Young Lions late last season after national service, while Kweh, a forward, has inked a two-year deal.

Kweh, a business undergraduate at the National University of Singapore, said: “When I was younger, my mother was the more traditional one who wanted me to get a stable office job, but my father was the one who wanted me to pursue what I wanted to do.

“Turning professional has always been a passion and dream of mine since young. My dad was a big football fan so I think that influenced me. I’m just following my dream now and hopefully I can play overseas one day too.”

His father Jonathan, a 56-year-old businessman, said: “Glenn is currently on a two-year contract with Tampines because it aligns with when he finishes his studies. Our plan is for him to look for opportunities overseas once he finishes his studies.

“At the end of the day, it is Glenn who decides. I am fully supportive of Glenn’s dream to be a professional footballer.

“Even if he gets a well-paying corporate job it will not be easy also. You have to like the job. As long as you are being paid reasonably and doing something you like, I think that is better for Glenn’s development.”

As these young Stags take another step towards their football dream, they will have to continue with the tough balancing act.

Ong, a third-year business student in Republic Polytechnic, said: “After school, sometimes I will be tired and still have to attend training. And I also have to sacrifice some of my social time with friends to catch up on homework but I think it’s something all of us (Kweh, Ong and Caelan) have had to manage.”

With Tampines’ practice of offering long-term contracts to key players such as Chew, Shah Shahiran and Kyoga Nakamura, it is hoped that this will in turn help convince more parents and young players that football can also be a viable career.

Stags coach Gavin Lee said: “Hopefully, what we do can influence some thinking but ultimately it is up to the families.

“We just want to give the best solution in football for them to turn professional and hopefully young players like Joel, Glenn, Yu En and even Caelan can be role models for the next generation.”

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