How to save the S.League, Part III: Bring back Singapore’s local, sleeping giants

In the third of a four-part series, best-selling author and FourFourTwo columnist Neil Humphreys argues for the return of established powerhouses like Woodlands and Tanjong Pagar to give Singapore's local football scene a fighting chance.

Picture an S.League where the four corners of the island are adequately represented.

There would be clubs in the north, south, east and west, all with distinct stadiums to serve their surrounding neighbourhoods. 

Singapore inevitably sought a shortcut, assuming it could throw up the building blocks of a domestic league like an HDB estate

It’s the J.League way. One club, one stadium, one regional community, the simplest of grassroots infrastructures established with one shared objective in mind – to nurture a sustainable domestic league.

If only the S.League had such an idealistic model to build upon.

Well, it did once. 

Back in 1996, the S.League’s inaugural season had only eight clubs: Balestier Central, Geylang United, Police FC (now Home United), Singapore Armed Forces (Warriors FC), Sembawang Rangers, Tampines Rovers, Tiong Bahru United and Woodlands Wellington.

The league’s pioneers covered the four corners of Singapore’s diamond, with the Police, Tiong Bahru and Balestier overlapping slightly in the dense central area.

Woodlands were an S.League pioneer

From the Armed Forces in Jurong to Geylang in Bedok, each club played at an established stadium with a similar capacity, between 4,000 and 6,000.

And those capacities were often reached and occasionally breached in the S.League’s early, halcyon days.

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The one club, one stadium, one community approach nearly paid off, primarily because it’s the only logical approach. 

From the world’s first organised league in England to the recent A-League in Australia, domestic football only succeeds through patient, piecemeal community engagement.

But Singapore inevitably sought a shortcut, assuming it could throw up the building blocks of a domestic league like an HDB estate, relying on cheap foreign labour to get the job done.

It didn’t work. 

Of course it didn’t work. Establishing a successful football league is a long game and the S.League should go back to basics. Its future lies in its past.

Remembering those old kampong ties

In 1996, Woodlands, Sembawang and Tiong Bahru were established football powerhouses, tapping into pre-existing local support (for Wellington FC, Sembawang Sports Club and Tiong Bahru Constituency Sports Club respectively).

An umbilical cord between the clubs and their neighbouring communities already existed. The S.League would, theoretically, only strengthen that bond. 

Yishun, Sembawang and Woodlands, such fertile ground for lion cubs, are no longer represented at elite level

In its earliest years, that was certainly the case. 

Each stadium had a unique following, with clubs unashamedly relying on old kampong ties and Malaysia Cup romantics to draw in the crowds.

But those three clubs are currently out of the S.League. 

Yishun, Sembawang and Woodlands, such fertile ground for lion cubs in the Malaysia Cup era, are no longer represented at elite level.

There are no northern clubs, no southern clubs (Tiong Bahru, now known as Tanjong Pagar, are also out) and no western clubs. Gombak United and Clementi joined the S.League later, only to drop out.

The Warriors do play in the west, but are a bit of a misnomer. Like Home United, they are essentially rootless, affiliated not to a geographical area, but a political organisation.

The Warriors may have disassociated themselves from SAFFC, but the ‘Gahmen’ stigma remains.

Tanjong Pagar are also on the top-tier scrapheap

More pertinently, what are the Warriors? Who do they represent? Does a kid in Choa Chu Kang make a local connection? Does he even care?

The kid in Manchester has Hobson’s choice. He supports one of the Manchester clubs or he doesn’t support anyone. The clue is in the title.

But the Warriors and the Protectors mean about as much to folks in Choa Chu Kang and Bishan as the White Swans mean to the average Singaporean. 

The kid in Jurong will form an affiliation with Arsenal at the Emirates before he’ll ever identify with Albirex at Jurong East.

[NEXT: The panicked decision that shattered promising progress]