Don't turn LionsXII into our Manchester City

Rising talent cannot be swallowed by developmental squads, they must play regularly in the S.League, argues Neil Humphreys.

Three years ago, Aleksandar Duric and I participated in a football podcast to discuss the birth of Lions XII. While others wallowed in the nostalgic hoopla of a return to the Malaysia Cup, we hinted at the futility of the exercise.

Local football appeared to be giving with one hand and taking with the other. Singapore’s talent funnel had been turned upside down, squeezing the best the island had to offer through the narrowest tube before being spat out towards the Lions XII or Courts Young Lions developmental squads.

The move looked like a counterproductive game of musical chairs, with two many bright young competitors challenging for too few chairs (particularly when there were plenty of chairs to spare at neglected S-League clubs).

But initial cynicism was swept aside by a tsunami of sentimentality, as tournament organisers and hopeful media outlets banked on a latent interest in the Malaysia Cup that was no longer there.

The LionsXII currently sit eighth in the MSL table after the win over Sarawak. Photo: Weixiang Lim

A packed Jalan Besar supposedly put paid to any residual doubts as new Lions XII supporters slapped their plastic inflatables in celebration of Singapore’s return to the Malaysia Cup. But they were not new supporters. They were displaced S.League supporters. The correlation was self-evident, but didn’t fit the overriding narrative of a triumphant return.

Beware the funneling effect

Soon, as Duric recently pointed out, keeping up with the Jones’ across the Causeway became more important than keeping our own house in order, fortifying the foundations and improving the home décor.

As long as dozen or so promising talents could be thrown together to see off those malevolent Malaysians, all other concerns were secondary.

Or at least they were until this year when the myopic emphasis on an outdated cross-Causeway relationship was ruthlessly exposed. Forget the neighbours. Our house stands on the verge of collapse.

With the local talent bowl passed between the Lions XII and the Courts Young Lions, other S.League clubs were left with a begging bowl.

The developmental squads turned into Manchester City.

With decent prospects funneled towards either the Lions XII or the Courts Young Lions, some quickly discovered there was no room at the inn. The two sides inadvertently turned into our version of the Premier League champions, with neither the money nor the silverware to validate the strategy.

Emmeric Ong (left, No. 8) has been reinvented as a central midfielder this season. Photo: Alson Ong/S.League

Forgotten kids sat on the benches, drifting towards their use-by dates. City couldn’t find a place for the likes of Jack Rodwell and Scott Sinclair. At the Lions XII, there was no room at the inn for Emmeric Ong and Ignatius Ang.

Their careers grinded to a halt until Ong moved on to Warriors FC and Ang joined Balestier Khalsa. Both are now playing regular first team football. Their potential may yet be fulfilled in their domestic league, which as it should be, as it is Thailand, Cambodia and even Guam, countries who are focusing on getting their houses in order, instead of obsessing over an archaic relationship with the next-door neighbours.

Ong and Ang are not exceptions. Stanely Ng is finally finding his football feet at Home United, a handy contributor at Bishan after struggling to make headway at the Courts Young Lions.

On the other hand, Suria Prakash went in the other direction, establishing his reputation as a promising winger away from the developmental squads. He earned an S.League Young Player of the Year nomination at Warriors FC before joining the Young Lions.

Squandering a limited talent pool

The intentions of both the Courts Young Lions and Lions XII are noble – to serve as a production line for nascent stars. But like Manchester City, the developmental squads can unwittingly stall rather than boost fledgling careers.

Increased game time at Home United has seen improvement from Stanely Ng. Photo: S.League

Like a voracious vacuum cleaner, they sweep up the youngest and brightest the country has to offer, but cannot possibly accommodate them all. So the vicious circle perpetuates itself. The other S.League clubs do not get them. The Young Lions and Lions XII do not always play them. And careers stagnate.

English football can cope with its hard-luck stories of squandered or neglected potential. There will always be another Jack Rodwell or Scott Sinclair. But Singapore’s talent pool is too small, too finite. Every gem must be polished and played regularly.

Only the S-League can do that.

Three weeks ago, Duric and I met again for a television debate. Singapore's national teams still hadn’t won at any level in 2015. The Lions XII novelty factor had long since dissipated. Fans didn’t buy into the Malaysia Cup myth.

As we had discussed three years earlier, the return to the Malaysia Cup did not accelerate the game’s development or propel a nationwide interest in watching local football. In fact, it did the opposite.

Nostalgia cannot rebuild a fragmented national sport. But a domestic league can. If Singapore football is serious about its survival then the S.League must be an incubator, not an afterthought.