Singapore Premier League • March 29, 2018
Irfan Najeeb targets breakthrough season with Stags
Irfan Najeeb (second from left, top row) in his first ever professional start during Tampines Rovers’ AFC Cup clash with Johor Darul Ta’zim earlier this month. (Photo: Ian Goh)
Centre-back will play first professional campaign this year after hard work and grit pays off
SINGAPORE, 27 MARCH 2018 – He was rejected by Home United FC at Under-14 level and also twice failed in trials to make the National Football Academy (NFA, now FAS Football Academy or FFA).
But Irfan Najeeb has persevered through all those setbacks to make his professional football debut this season – for local powerhouses Tampines Rovers, no less.
The centre-back, who turns 19 this July, was brought on for a true baptism of fire in January against Bali United in a Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League qualifier.
The Stags were under-strength due to injuries to key players and Irfan replaced Safirul Sulaiman with 14 minutes left in a match they ultimately lost 3-1.
“I was not surprised (to come on) because at that time we didn’t have a lot of options, but I was thankful that the opportunity came up,” he recalled of playing in front of a sold-out 25,000-capacity stadium. “I just wanted to do my best and play my own game and it was really such a good atmosphere.”
Another substitute appearance against Persija Jakarta in the AFC Cup followed, before he was handed a start against Johor Darul Ta’zim FC earlier this month at Jalan Besar Stadium.
“I felt really nervous… (but) as the game went on I started to play my own game and get used to the fans and atmosphere,” Irfan said.
His progress is testament to the hard work put in since starting out in the sport at seven. Gombak United FC gave him an opportunity at 13, before he joined Home for the next two years.
The NFA finally came calling thereafter and the defender turned out for them from 16 to 18, donning Singapore colours at various international tournaments alongside the likes of current Young Lions players Ikhsan Fandi and Nazhiim Harmann.
Irfan playing for the NFA Under -18s (Photo courtesy of Irfan)
Irfan’s big break came when Tampines Head Coach Juergen Raab invited him and a couple of his friends from the NFA for a trial last December and signed him afterward.
“They were searching for younger players and I felt it would be good for me to (be able to) play for them, so I just gave my all for the trial,” he said, referring to the stipulation that each local club has to recruit at least six Under-23 players, three of whom must start each game, for the new Singapore Premier League season.
“I feel honoured and it’s one of my wishes come true to play with so many national players. Tampines is a good team and I have to really work hard to get my spot and prove I can play.”
Currently a Year 2 student pursuing a diploma in Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Singapore Polytechnic, Irfan juggles training with school but says he is “used to it”.
Irfan can count on the support of his family, who are “always there” for his games, as well as a famous uncle – Singapore stalwart Shahril Ishak, capped 134 times for the Lions.
“My father (has always) supported me to become what he didn’t, which is a professional footballer,” he said. “Having Shahril as my uncle, I’ve always idolised him and wanted to be as good as him because he’s a legend in Singapore. We are very close, actually, and we talk about football all the time.”
Voice tinged with pride, Shahril described his nephew as a quiet and “good boy” with plenty of potential.
“I am very proud of him,” the Home attacker said. “He told me (previously that) one day, he wants to be able to play side by side with me and I was laughing then!”
Left: Irfan with his Gombak coach Jasni Hatta. Right: With uncle Shahril Ishak (Photos courtesy of Irfan)
The 34-year-old has always urged Irfan to stay grounded and it is advice the latter takes to heart.
“I said to him, ‘keep your feet on the ground, train hard and believe in yourself’,” Shahril said. “Stay positive regardless of whether the team wins or loses. His mindset has to be strong as he’s still schooling and it’s difficult; he must manage his time very well.”
Shahril noted that at the Stags, there is a plethora of experience that Irfan can learn from in the form of defenders Daniel Bennett and Fahrudin Mustafic, who have a combined 227 Singapore caps.
Irfan is aware, adding: “Farra (Mustafic), he always gives me advice; he plays beside me so he tells me what to do and not to do, and he’s such an experienced player, so I have to listen.”
The step up has been a big one and Irfan remembers not being able to “feel my legs” after his very first week of training, but he has since adapted.
“I was sleeping straight away after I got home,” he chuckled. “It’s really different (now) because I have to be alert and strong all the time; there’s no time to slack (in any game).”
Irfan cites his timing in the tackle and composure as strengths, while acknowledging he needs to be stronger physically.
He is excited at the prospect of taking to the National Stadium pitch at the Singapore Sports Hub this Saturday against Albirex Niigata FC (S) in the Great Eastern Community Shield.
“We’ve prepared well and… we’ll give Albirex a good fight; I have confidence in my team as well,” he said. “I am excited to play in front of a home crowd and my family will be there, of course!”
While it is his first season in the top flight, Irfran has already set some lofty goals.
“Getting a National Team call-up and winning the Young Player of the Year – those are two of my top goals,” he asserted. “I don’t want to limit myself and I want to push myself hard.”