The S.League craves credibility, but clubs in other leagues do not finish second and then release most of their squad a week later. Now’s the time to build stability, argues Neil Humphreys...
Imagine the following scenario. Manchester City finished second in the English Premier League last season. Within a week or two of passing the crown to Chelsea, a sledgehammer was taken to the dressing room.
Not a single player was retained. Not one. Sixteen players were immediately released, including City’s foreign stars, with negotiations continuing for the rest. Even then, not all of them will survive.
Initially, the extreme measures appear calamitous until comparisons are made to other clubs. Manchester United, who finished fourth and qualified for the Champions League, retained just three players. Tottenham, who came in fifth, got even more carried away with the guillotine. Only one player kept his head.
The S.League is an erratic, madcap law unto itself, making new rules up as fast as it can break the old ones.
Of course, it’s impossible to imagine. It would never happen. In most leagues, such a dramatic culling exercise would be unsustainable, suicidal even, the strategic equivalent of sitting on the detonator.
But the S.League isn’t most leagues. It’s an erratic, madcap law unto itself, making new rules up as fast as it can break old ones. At a time when credibility and sustainability are in short supply, Singapore’s only professional sports league has just done all of the above.
Within days of the season’s conclusion, second-placed Tampines dropped their squad. On the initial ‘retained and released’ yet, no players were kept. Jufri Taha, Fahrudin Mustafic, Joey Sim, Fabian Kwok and Ismadi Mukhtar were still negotiating and the other 16 were let go.
If that’s what happens to runners-up, who needs relegation?
Of course, it’s easy to be facetious. The S.League finds itself tackling a unique set of circumstances (as it seems to after every season, picking up the pieces from the latest explosive brainwaves).
LionsXII were unceremoniously shown the door and S.League clubs are circling with all the subtlety of laughing hyenas trotting beside a wounded lion.
Tampines, who can dangle the carrot of a return to the AFC Champions League by virtue of being the highest-ranked Singapore club, have already signed current Singapore internationals Izzdin Shafiq, Christopher van Huizen and Hafiz Sujad from LionsXII and are now linked to goalkeeping star Izwan Mahbud and defender Madhu Mohana.
They smell blood, cheap blood from the decimated LionsXII camp.
But the slash and burn approach to squad lists amplifies the perception of a kampong competition wading through one boggy quagmire after another without any sense of direction or final destination.
It’s another ride on the Mickey Mouse merry-go-round. The same participants jump on board every year with no idea where or when they’ll get off. Every spin tests the boundaries of credibility.
Tampines’ new chairman Murali Krishna Ramachandra, a successful corporate finance lawyer, has honourable intentions. He wants to feed younger players into the national set-up. The idealism is commendable and Tampines are by no means the only club making wholesale changes.
Fourth-placed Balestier have retained only three players and fifth-placed Warriors just one, while Geylang, who finished eighth, have held on to four.
Indeed, if the retained players from all seven Singaporean clubs were added together, the 23 names would barely make an entire squad.
The S.League’s traditional pass-the-parcel routine, where club chairmen essentially sit in a circle and grab the nearest player when the music stops, is indicative of the tournament’s decline.
It’s another ride on the Mickey Mouse merry-go-round for the same people with no idea where or when they’ll get off.
The talent pool continues to shrink like a puddle in a drought.
So the unseemly scramble is for recycled signatures. It’s Black Friday for local football, with desperate managers fighting over displaced footballers rather than cheap flat-screen TVs.
But this has to be the last time. If entire squads are being delisted in a similarly haphazard fashion next season, the plug should probably be pulled on the 20-year-old S.League.
Deserted dressing rooms and unemployed national footballers are hardly adverts for progress.
Thailand’s enterprising coach Kiatisuk Senamuang has underlined the value of squad continuity. His swift, pass-and-move strategy has been cultivated over years, rather than weeks. He works with settled, familiar players whose relationships were forged at under-23 tournaments like the 2014 Asian Games.
For the last month or so, Singapore’s senior pros didn’t even know which country they’d be playing in next season, let alone which club.
The disorganised and seemingly random youth development template appears to have been borrowed from an old English hymn rather than a coaching manual. Local players plough the fields and scatter to Malaysia, to Courts Young Lions and to LionsXII, with the rest making up the numbers in the S.League.
It was impossible for grassroots to grow when the seeds were scattered so widely.
So the end of LionsXII should also mark the end of the annual transfer upheaval. Settled squads offer a chance to build for the long-term. See Thailand for more details. Stability might also bring back supporters.
Stop the Mickey Mouse merry-go-round and fans won’t feel like they’re being taken for a ride.