SINGAPORE - Harry Birtwistle says pace and trickery are among his strengths on the pitch so perhaps it was no surprise the young Wolverhampton Wanderers defender deftly side-stepped a question he knew would inevitably arise on Wednesday (Oct 28).
Barely an hour after he became the first Singapore-born player to sign professional terms with an English Premier League club, he was asked: Would you play for the Singapore national team?
This would require him giving up his British passport and returning to enlist for mandatory national service.
“I’m open to anything, but right now I’m putting all of my focus to my club,” he told The Straits Times in a Zoom interview.
“My dream is to be a Premier League footballer, so that’s what I’m 100 per cent putting my focus into right now, but you never know.”
In a media statement, he had added: "I'm so honoured to be standing here today as a Singapore-born professional footballer at a Premier League club. Hopefully, this can inspire others after me who don't believe they can do it."
The right wing-back, who turns 18 in December, moved from Singapore to England in 2017 when he signed a scholarship with Wolves, whose first team are currently 11th in the 20-team EPL.
Despite his tender age, he has already trained several times with Bruno Lage’s first team this season, rubbing shoulders with seasoned professionals and internationals.
The youngster’s remarkable progress has not come without struggle. He has not been able to return to Singapore to see his Singaporean mother Rachel, or his siblings, who still live in Adam Road, for two years.
“I grew up in Singapore and Singapore’s all I knew, I’d never lived anywhere else,” Birtwistle, who attended the Overseas Family School and then Dulwich College, said.
“I’ve been back two or three times since I’ve left, and I wish it could have been more.
“But with the distance, then especially with Covid-19 now and my schedule with football, it’s very difficult… hopefully this Christmas I can see my mum again. It’s been way, way too long.”
Aside from family and friends, Birtwistle says he badly misses local hawker fare.
“I miss the food so much. Sometimes I dream about roti prata, char siew rice… seriously. I miss the food courts so much,” he said.
Food, culture, weather and even the slang in Wolverhampton – a city in England’s West Midlands – were all things Birtwistle struggled to adapt to at first, but he added he was grateful for the life lessons because it “made me a man”.
Asked to describe his game, he said confidently: “I’m exciting. Every time I get the ball, something’s going to happen. I create chances, I’m fast. One-v-one, I can’t remember a time an opponent has got the better of me.”
He is not all bluster, though, and was quick to name areas to improve, such as his endurance and being more clinical in front of goal.
He did score in the Under-23 side’s 3-2 win over Newcastle in the Premier League 2 (PL2) on Monday. According to the club’s website, he has featured in seven games out of nine this season at that level, playing 499 minutes.
Wolves’ technical director Scott Sellars said Birtwistle has “shown a lot of commitment” since he arrived at the club, and has demonstrated a lot of potential to deserve his professional contract.
The club, said Sellars, plan to assess in January if the teenager should go out on loan to gain experience playing first-team football.
Birtwistle is one of several players with Singaporean heritage plying their trade in Europe.
Defender Perry Ng, 25, of English second-tier side Cardiff City and midfielder Luke O’Nien, 26, of third-tier Sunderland are both eligible under Fifa rules to play for the Republic via their Singapore-born grandfathers.
However, the British passport holders cannot turn out for Singapore unless they obtain a Singapore passport. Singapore citizens are not allowed to hold dual nationality.
The name familiar to many Singaporeans however, is Ben Davis, who signed professional terms with Fulham in July 2018.
Davis, now 19, was born in Phuket to a Thai mother and an English father and moved to Singapore with his family at age five before becoming a citizen four years later.
He went on to represent Singapore at the Under-16 and U-19 levels, and received a call-up to the senior national team but did not take to the pitch.
Four months after the Lions call-up, he signed professional terms with Fulham, where he had been on a scholarship since July 2017, becoming the first Singaporean to do so with a top-tier English club.
The following day, the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) announced the rejection of his application for long-term deferment from national service.
The issue of his deferment sparked a public debate about national service and sporting commitments for Singapore's male athletes.
In February 2019, Mindef confirmed Davis did not report for NS as required and had thus defaulted on his NS commitments. It added that he is also staying overseas without a valid exit permit. As such, he is liable upon conviction to a fine of up to $10,000 and/or imprisonment of up to three years.
He later switched his international allegiance to Thailand and in August, signed for third-tier English side Oxford United.