Prime League • October 12, 2015

Young Stags Create History With First-Ever Prime League Title


Written by: Shawn Lim

Nobody gave them a chance to perform well in the 2015 Great Eastern Yeo’s Prime League, let alone challenge for the title.

After all, Tampines Rovers Prime League team finished in the bottom three in the 2014 edition, above Woodlands Wellington and Tanjong Pagar, two clubs which have sat out the 2015 season.

In addition, the Stags management only gave newly-appointed coach Akbar Nawas one week to assemble his team before the season kicked off in March.

With a less than ideal timeframe for pre-season preparations, it was not a surprise when the young Stags went down 4-2 to Geylang International in the first match of their campaign.

So when Akbar’s charges beat Hougang United 4-0 on Sunday evening to win the club’s first ever Prime League title with a game to spare, it completed the young Stags’ remarkable transformation.

Haiqal Sulaiman opened the scoring for the visitors in the 23rd minute before the floodgates opened as Naeem Rahimi, Pedrag Pocuca and Taufiq Suparno got on the scoresheet as well.

For Akbar, who was formerly Singapore National Under-18 head coach, it was a considerable feat because of the problems that he faced when he took up the job.

However, the modest bespectacled was quick to shift the spotlight to his young players instead.

“No one gave us any hope at the start of the season because we only finalised the squad and started training together a week before the season started,” said Akbar.

“Whoever we had, we just gathered them up and in the end we had 14-15 midfielders, only one or two defenders and no strikers.

“So credit must go to the players because at the end of the day, we started our first match of the season with a loss.

“This title is all the more sweet because most of our players are unknowns, some were with the NFA (National Football Association) and some were back-up players.

“Haiqal (Sulaiman) is one of those who was a back-up and he only started playing for us in June. He has scored in two consecutive matches and it is because of back-up players like him who stepped up, that we managed to win the title.

“They had a to go through a lot of hardships to get here, but the most important thing was that they never stopped believing in themselves.”

Akbar, who is also involved with the Stags’ S.League team as an assistant to head coach V.Sundramoorthy, also shared that the young Stags’ success was also due in part to the senior players’ help.

The coach explained that players like captain Fahrudin Mustafic and Pocuca – both played in the match against Hougang – occasionally came down to join his team in their matches and gave them invaluable advice.

“The S.League players join us very infrequently because of their packed schedule and when they are available, they make a big difference because they help to calm the team down,” said

“They have been there and done that, you saw the first 20 minutes where we were all over the place and we were very nervous because we know that we just needed a draw to become champions.

“These boys have never been placed in these kind of situations before because we have never been crowned champions before.

“With his (Mustafic) presence, he actually helped to make them settle down and play their own game.

“Off the field, they are very accommodating to my boys, always giving advice and every one of them has been rooting for us.”

Echoing his coach’s views was Haiqal, who also added that the main reason why his teammates clicked with the senior players instantly was because of the team’s bond.

“They (S.League players) guide, motivate and encourage us even we made silly mistakes, they will tell us to keep our heads up and keep on going,” said the 19-year-old.

“We have a good bond with each other, regardless of race and religion to come together as a team because all of us have different backgrounds.

“We put that aside because we want to play football, a sport that we all love.”

As for Mustafic, the former Singapore International footballer was impressed with his younger teammates’ spirit and even felt that the senior team can learn a thing or two from their juniors.

“They fight for one another throughout the whole season and to be part of the boys’ journey in making history is a really enjoyable experience for me,” said the 34-year-old.

“One thing we can learnt from this team is their spirit because they have a never-say-die attitude.

“We need that kind of attitude if we want to snatch the (S.League) title with eight games left.”