Football: Pulling Young Lions out of S-League would be a 'disaster'

FAS technical director Michel Sablon wants all Singapore football stakeholders to prioritise the development of young players.
FAS technical director Michel Sablon wants all Singapore football stakeholders to prioritise the development of young players.TNP FILE PHOTO

Three games, three defeats, 13 goals conceded and only one goal scored - it has been far from a rip-roaring start to the S-League season for the Garena Young Lions.

Yet, despite their poor form, Football Association of Singapore (FAS) technical director Michel Sablon insists there is value in keeping the team, comprising mostly Singapore Under-22 players, in the league.

Sablon, whose contract with the FAS was extended by two years on Monday, told The Straits Times: "We must stay in the S-League. It will be a disaster for this generation of players if we don't (remain).

"The average age of the team is 19.9. We know they are young and that it will be difficult, but that is not a reason to give up. We will improve. We won't lose every game 5-0, that's for sure."

The Young Lions lost to reigning champions Albirex Niigata by that scoreline earlier this month. They fell 2-0 to Hougang United in their last game on Saturday and were routed 6-1 by Home United in their S-League season opener.

While Sablon acknowledged that results have been far from ideal, he said this was the best way for young players to get much-needed playing time at a high level.

The Prime League, he said, is simply not strong enough to push the team. Players could sign with other local S-League clubs - but that could mean a lack of playing time.

To prove his point, the Belgian loaded an Excel spreadsheet on his MacBook. One sheet was filled with minutes clocked by each player in the Young Lions last season. The other, minutes played by young players in other clubs.

He pointed to Hafiz Sulaiman, 21, who has been capped at national youth level but managed only 271 out of a possible 2,160 minutes with Warriors FC last season. By comparison, 28 of the 38 players who suited up for the Young Lions last term clocked more minutes than Hafiz.

Another option would be to introduce a rule for clubs to field young players. However Sablon, who holds a Uefa Pro Diploma Coaching Licence - the highest coaching qualification in Europe - said: "We discussed this before with the clubs... but some coaches were not happy with it because they are judged on results. And that is totally normal. It will take time to change the mindset of the league and clubs."

Credited as one of the men behind the rise of Belgian football, he said: "The only way to close the gap is to do what we're doing - put young players in a demanding environment to play at a higher level than they normally play. We are working for the future of Singapore football and it will take time.

"The first two years (of a new plan) are always the most difficult. But the plan is to develop players. You will see the difference in three to four years, starting with the youth teams."

A test looming on the horizon is August's SEA Games. Richard Tardy, a man Sablon brought on board, will be tasked with improving Singapore's dismal showing at the 2015 edition, when they crashed out in the group stage on home soil.

Tardy said: "Our target is to reach the semi-finals first. We should perform better than what we saw (in 2015), but let's not put too much pressure on the team."

While one eye will always be on results, Sablon pleaded with all stakeholders to prioritise the development of youngsters.

The former Belgium U-21 coach pointed to how a move to replace throw-ins at primary school matches with kick-ins ended up being abused by some coaches, who use it as a chance to launch long balls into danger zones. The rule will soon be altered to ensure the ball must stay on the ground for kick-ins.

He said: "Our decisions are based on the long-term development of players. It's not for success and glory. I don't need this. What I need is support from all stakeholders.

"Not everyone will agree (with me) but it's good to have alternatives. I always listen to people who give me feedback because it shows they care. But for all those who say (my plan) is rubbish without any reason, I don't care about them."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 15, 2017, with the headline 'Pulling Young Lions out of S-League would be a 'disaster''. Subscribe