Football: Tampines youth experiment face baptism of fire in Singapore Premier League

Coach Gavin Lee leading training for the Tampines Rovers. ST PHOTO: MOHD KHALID BABA

SINGAPORE - While their rivals have gone with big name signings to lead their Singapore Premier League (SPL) challenge, Tampines Rovers' Gavin Lee has opted for youth and potential to refresh his squad.

Lee has brought in the largely untested quartet of Marc Ryan Tan, Irfan Najeeb, Amirul Haikal and Iman Hakim and they face a baptism of fire as the Stags open their campaign against big-spending Lion City Sailors on Saturday (March 13).

Tampines finished runners-up to champions Albirex Niigata last year and have recruited just one experienced player in Montenegrin winger Armin Bosnjak, 26, during the off-season. He replaces the departed Jordan Webb - the Canadian was Tampines' standout peformer last term with seven goals and five assists.

Yet Lee, who at 30 is the youngest head coach in the SPL, has backed his fledgling team to not only continue with their possession-based, attacking football that has in recent years earned them many admirers but remain a championship contender.

Attacking midfielder Tan, 19, is the son of former Lions striker Steven Tan. Like him, defenders Irfan and Amirul, both 21, were also part of the Young Lions side that despite just three wins last year, had some creditable performances.

Iman, 19, joins from Albirex and is seen as one of the Republic's most promising midfielders. He said: "I don't want to give the impression that I'm just a 19-year old who is here to be a part of the squad.

"I want to show that I'm good enough to play in the first XI and so far coach Gavin has put his faith in me and I want to show him and the team that I want this opportunity really badly."

The Stags will also be making their AFC Champions League group-stage debut this year, in June or July. They are in Group H, alongside K-League champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, A-League champions Sydney and J-League runners-up Gamba Osaka.

Tampines' transfers contrast sharply with that of the Sailors, who spent €1.8 million (S$2.9 million) to sign Brazilian midfielder Diego Lopes from Portugal and also picked up 2019 SPL Player of the Year Faris Ramli. Even Hougang United, sixth last term, have signalled their intent by snapping up former Geylang International striker Khairul Nizam and former Albirex top scorer Tomoyuki Doi.

Lee was unfazed though and said: "Every season brings with it a new set of challenges and while clubs (around us) have strengthened, we are focused only on ourselves and what we can do.

"We may have less resources than others but we've never let that affect our performances. Since 2019, this club has been all about players performing and working hard for each other and if our stars align and everything falls into place, we might get the results that we hope for."

The club is still paying off debts incurred under the stewardship of previous chairman Krishna Ramachandra while revenue has also been hit with Covid-19 safe distancing measures affecting their jackpot machine takings.

The Stags' five league titles put them only behind Warriors FC's nine but Tampines' last crown was in 2013 and defender Madhu Mohana said his team needed to be more decisive up front. They drew five matches last season, as many as bottom side Tanjong Pagar.

Madhu, 30, said: "When opponents face us, they prefer to sit back and frustrate us. We must learn and we have been working on this, to turn the draws into wins. We have to be more consistent."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.