Bok looking to help Cubs earn finals berth

Singapore U22 coach Richard Bok will be looking to make history as he lead his side into their first AFC U23 Championship qualifiying match in Vientiane on Friday.

Richard Bok placed himself in the Asian football map when he steered local club side Singapore Armed Forces FC (now known as Warriors FC) into the group stage of the AFC Champions League in 2009 and 2010.

Half a decade on, the 45-year-old could put himself in the record books as the first Singaporean to successfully push both club and country to the pinnacle of Asian football should he succeed in guiding the Singapore national Under-22 team into the AFC Under-23 Championship finals in Qatar next year.

Instead of a local professional set-up and experienced players such as Shahril Jantan, Therdsak Chaiman and Aleksandar Duric, he has to deal with young starlets who have school and national service commitments and will count on the likes of Zulfairuuz Rudy, Irfan Fandi and Iqbal Hussain to do the job in the Laotian capital of Vientiane.

Speaking to FourFourTwo before his team’s departure for their Laos mission, Bok acknowledges the shift in environment has taken some adjusting to since his appointment to the post in the middle of last year.

“From professional players to young guns, I have to conduct coaching and interacting with players in a different way, especially when these guys have school and national service to attend to apart from club training,” the three-time Coach of the Year says. “It has not been easy but I am taking those issues in my stride as I choose the best available players where I can.”

Iqbal Hussain is set to play a key role for the U22s in Laos. Photo: WX Lim

His Cubs will have to overcome hosts Laos, China and Mongolia in the Group J qualifiers beginning from Friday (27 March) as they aim to be only the second Singapore national team of any level to qualify for an Asian international finals.

Former national striker Abdullah Noor was the first head coach to guide Singapore into the finals in 2007 when his national Under-15 side, that included present internationals Al-Qaasimy Rahman and Shahfiq Ghani, reached the 2008 AFC Under-16 finals in Uzbekistan after finishing second in their qualifying group.

Since taking up his present coaching job, the path has been anything but a bed of roses as he and his team endured a tough run of results in various tournaments and friendly matches in less than a year.

In his first assignment, the 2014 Under-21 Hassanal Bolkiah Trophy, the patched-up Under-21 squad suffered their worst run in four appearances as they lost all five matches, including shockers against minnows Cambodia and hosts Brunei, to exit at the group stage.

His second mission in Vietnam was little better as his team only managed a draw in three matches to finish last among the six participating teams in the Thanh Nien Under-21 Newspaper Cup in October.

The most recent trip to Bangladesh earlier this year was more encouraging as the team reached the semi-finals of the Bangabandu Cup, where they also drew with Bahrain Under-21s in the group stage.

Despite the less-than-desired results in the build-up, Bok views it as a platform where he experiments with his tactics and line-ups and adjusts to tight tournament schedules, as it will be the case in Laos where they play three games in five days.

“These tournaments had very packed schedules which has helped us stimulate the tournament situation we are going to face in Laos,” he says. “They enabled me to rotate all my players to see how they performed during match situations and select some of them for my final squad.”

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