New Cheetah feels great at 37

Shahril Ishak shooting at training as fellow new signings (from left) Khairul Nizam, Kaishu Yamazaki and Tomoyuki Doi await their turn at St Wilfrid Field.
Shahril Ishak shooting at training as fellow new signings (from left) Khairul Nizam, Kaishu Yamazaki and Tomoyuki Doi await their turn at St Wilfrid Field.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

He turns 37 today, but former national football captain Shahril Ishak is convinced that he can still make an impact on the pitch.

The playmaker said: "I can run, I can compete, I'm enjoying my football and I feel great because each time I play, I contribute. I believe those who follow my matches can see that."

His creative qualities - he contributed three goals and two assists in just 372 minutes across nine games for Lion City Sailors last season - are why Hougang United have snapped him up for the upcoming Singapore Premier League (SPL) season.

Hougang coach Clement Teo said: "Shahril has a wealth of experience at club and international level. He has done very well in pre-season and we believe he can still compete against younger players.

"He is one of those rare local players who has that eye for a killer pass and has the technical ability to execute it. He stands as good a chance of being a starter."

Shahril might have led the Lions to their last international triumph at the 2012 AFF Championship but he will have his work cut out for him in a squad stacked with attacking talents.

The Cheetahs retained national forwards Shawal Anuar, Sahil Suhaimi and Shahfiq Ghani, and added another in former Geylang International striker Khairul Nizam and former Albirex Niigata top scorer Tomoyuki Doi.

Former Sailors teammate Kaishu Yamazaki is also set to play in midfield. But Shahril is relishing the challenge. He said: "This is good motivation for me and my teammates. We have a good mix of senior and younger players who can play in different positions, so it is good for the team.

"I would want to play in every game, and it is always frustrating if I don't, but this is football and I'm not bitter about not playing as much as I would have liked at the Sailors.

"They are building a strong team with their resources and that is good for them and the league. We are underdogs but I am very driven to help Hougang achieve something this season, because I have yet to win any silverware in Singapore's domestic competitions."

He won the S-League Player of the Year and Goal of the Year awards with Home United in 2010 but Shahril has more AFF winner's medals - three - than his sole league title, which came in the form of the Malaysia Super League win with the LionsXII in 2012.

Perhaps only after winning a local trophy will he finally consider hanging up his boots, but he hopes he will be able to do so on his own terms, and not because of the SPL's unique ruling that requires senior local clubs to start three players aged 23 and under.

With teams allowed to sign four imports, this reduces the number of over-23 starters to just four per team, one of whom is usually an established goalkeeper.

Shahril said: "Players should be selected because they are good enough and not because they are young enough. Look at Farhan Zulkifli, he is still only 18 and he is one of those promising young players who would get a chance anyway because of his abilities.

"The quota does have some benefits as clubs usually sign six U-23 players, who will improve from training and playing with the senior local and foreign players. But at some clubs, the U-23 players who start are usually full-backs, and they get replaced at half-time, which shows they are not genuine starters.

"This is not good in a few ways because still-capable senior players may be forced out prematurely, or teams may go for established senior players over 30 at the expense of those who turn 24. Furthermore, if clubs want to slot the U-23 players at full-back, it means we are not grooming young players in other positions.

"Perhaps the SPL can gradually reduce the quota to two and then one, and focus on restarting the U-21 league, which will also allow clubs to groom youngsters in a more natural way and be more in line with what other major leagues are doing."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2021, with the headline 'New Cheetah feels great at 37'. Subscribe