Dream Team 1994: The one who had the sweetest of left feet – Lee Man Hon

Just over two decades ago, the Singapore FA team completed a now legendary cup and league double to sign off in style from the Malaysian leagues. Weixiang Lim talks to a popular left winger who is still remembered fondly these days – Lee Man Hon...

What have you been up to since 1994?

I was only 18, at the beginning of my football career, when Singapore pulled out of the Malaysia Cup, it was quite a big blow for me. 

I went on to play in the S.League from 1996 to 2003 and retired from football when I was 28. I moved on to become a property agent for 8 years, and now I run a clothing stall at China Square – Britta’s Corner. I also do some coaching on the side with students.

That's a young age for a footballer to retire. What made you decide to hang up your boots?

I guess I just fell out of love with football. You know a footballer’s routine – you train in the morning, you come home and rest and then you go back out for training again. It had become repetitive and quite meaningless for me. I was all ready to pack it in at 26. But (Tampines Rovers chairman) Teo Hock Seng persuaded me to continue. He made me captain and I will always be grateful to him for showing faith in me. But in 2003, when coach Chow Kwai Lam left the club, I decided that was it for me.

You know, I was only 18 when we won the Malaysia Cup. It was such an amazing experience, to play with so many talented players. The teamwork and camaderie was excellent and you had the whole nation behind you, full-house every game. It’s was such a high to come down from and everything afterwards just paled in comparison.

How did you start off in football?

It was through the influence of my uncle. He was a big Liverpool fan and because he lived with us, I would join in whenever he watched the games on TV.  But I didn’t become a Liverpool fan. Instead, I became a fan of Tottenham Hotspur, after watching them beat Anderlecht to lift the UEFA Cup on TV.

The player who captured my imagination was Glenn Hoddle. He was really a wonderful player and he made me want to play football as well.

So I started playing football for my school and from there I was invited to go for trials with the combined schools team.  The trial was held at the old Christchurch Secondary School field, just next to Jalan Besar Stadium.

I got a shock when I arrived there, because there were so many players from all around Singapore. I felt very shy and decided to give that trial a miss. When I went to school, I was scolded by my coach and he made sure I went for the trial the following year where I was selected for the team by Sies Senan. Together with me in that Combined Schools Team were players like Zakaria Awang, Zulkarnain Zainal and Fahmie Abdullah, who also went on to play for Singapore later on.

 I was playing for the Combined Schools Team when I was spotted by Robert Lim. I don’t know how he got my number, but he called me at my home. I didn’t even know who he was at first. He asked me to report for training at the Milo Centre at Glouchester Park.  There were three Milo Centres at that time – Glouchester, Farrer Park and Mountbatten and it was a big thing to be selected for the Milo Teams. Under Robert Lim’s tutelage, I slowly moved up the ranks. He was a very strict coach, but the regimen allowed me improve very quickly.

You had a short stint training in Europe when you were 17. What was the experience like?

I don’t know if you remember, back then there was the Goh Chok Tong-City Developments Football Scholarship programme and I was selected for three month training stint with FC Nitra in Czechoslovakia. It was a very successful scheme which benefitted players like Nazri Nasir, Aide Iskandar, Zakaria Awang as well. I don’t think there is anything like it today.  

It was also a bit of a culture shock. I was homesick after the first week, because the it was winter and the weather was extremely cold. The food was also different, and the training was very very tough. For the first two weeks we saw nothing but the medicine ball. We ran up hills and through the forest carrying it. It was only two weeks later that we saw the football.

It was a real eye opener, because they were streets ahead of us in terms of professionalism. It was all about football. Together with Rudy Khairon, I got to play in their reserve team matches and I think standard wise, we were not that far behind their players in the same age group.

NEXT PAGE Breaking into the national team, letting the ball do the work and dealing with female fans