Still searching for answers

After ACL high, Stags face grim reality as losses mount and low morale plagues squad

Less than three months ago, Tampines Rovers were playing for the first time in the Asian Champions League (ACL), becoming the first Singapore team in over a decade to compete in the continent's premier club tournament.

But after an ACL campaign where they lost all six group-stage games - conceding 27 goals and scoring just once in the process - their wretched form has extended to the Singapore Premier League (SPL).

After Tuesday's latest defeat - a 6-1 hammering by the Lion City Sailors - the Stags have now lost five out of seven matches since their return from Uzbekistan and allowed 28 goals in that time.

It has been a spectacular fall from grace by what is essentially last year's best local side, who finished runners-up to Japanese champions Albirex Niigata.

In their 19 SPL matches this season, the Stags, currently fourth in the eight-team league, have shipped 50 goals. Only in 1996 and 2001 did the club leak more.

But Tampines chairman Desmond Ong is not calling it a crisis just yet, and said the club are already looking to move on from a miserable year.

He said: "Yes, the form has been disappointing and there is no way around that, but this has been an unprecedented and tough season for us due to, among other things, our exploits in the Champions League.

"We have to be honest and realise that we underestimated the toll it would have on us and overestimated the ability we thought we had in dealing with it."

He added that as the most successful local side in the last three seasons, the Stags have set themselves such high standards that questions are bound to be asked when they are not met.

Tampines' troubles have largely stemmed from their ACL campaign. Prior to leaving for Tashkent, they suffered only three defeats in the first 12 matches this season.

There were plans for them to be placed in a "training bubble", which would have allowed them to maintain fitness levels during their 14-day quarantine. But these plans were cancelled after two players tested positive for Covid-19 upon their return to Singapore.

A thin squad has not helped matters. The lure of the Sailors' riches led to the departures of national players Amirul Adli and Shahdan Sulaiman, while top young players from the past season - Syahrul Sazali, Joel Chew and Shah Shahiran - have enlisted for National Service.

Another possible reason for the poor run of form is what one player describes as "a toxic environment" and infighting within the squad.

A Tampines player, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that morale within the team has suffered after the dismal ACL campaign, which has led to bickering within the team.

He added: "Players started to blame each other and it would often become full-blown arguments. There was even one occasion where players came to blows and had to be pulled apart. These things were never properly dealt with, so these feelings have lingered for some time."

Another player noted the poor form could also be down to a lack of motivation and admitted that "players seem to be dragging their feet to training".

But club captain Yasir Hanapi, 32, brushed aside the incidents.

He said: "Fights? When you fight, it means there is a desire to change things and you want to correct things. To me, there will always be good to come from it. When we go through the motions and accept things as they are, that is wrong.

"To me, it is a question of commitment and pride. This is our job. We play for Tampines and we have to live up to the reputation of the club. There must be resolve to not make the same mistakes again. If all of us had it, we wouldn't be in this situation and it wouldn't be this bad."

Ong declined to address the alleged infighting but said that the club are taking steps to refresh the team in the close season and assemble a squad next year who will be capable of challenging for honours on all fronts.

He also reiterated that his faith in head coach Gavin Lee, whose contract was extended to 2024 in June, "remains unshaken".

The 31-year-old Lee, whose possession-based, attacking philosophy has earned many admirers, has come in for fierce criticism on social media. He denied feeling pressured by the online vitriol.

When asked why he felt the team were underperforming, he said there was "no easy answer" but admitted the ACL campaign "took a lot away from us physically and mentally".

He said: "When we went into the season, we understood what resources we had. We worked within what we had. We didn't have an open chequebook to reinforce the squad as to how people thought we would. We made what we felt were the best decisions at that time."

Like Ong, he too has opted to look ahead at "fresh, new solutions" for next season.

However, what looms on the horizon is a trip to the Jurong East stronghold of league leaders Albirex today.

Despite the Stags' woeful form, Albirex coach Keiji Shigetomi said that "Tampines have a very good team although their current results are not ideal".

He noted: "Our matches against Tampines have always been tough and I am looking forward to playing against them again. The form of Tampines does not matter. What is important is that we concentrate on getting the three points."


SINGAPORE PREMIER LEAGUE

TODAY

Albirex v Tampines (7.35pm, Jurong East Stadium)

SUNDAY

Young Lions v Tanjong Pagar (5.20pm, Jalan Besar Stadium)

Geylang v Lion City Sailors (5.20pm, Our Tampines Hub)

All on Singtel TV Ch111/112 & StarHub Ch201/202

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 24, 2021, with the headline 'Still searching for answers'. Subscribe