The cross-country runner who sneaked out for football: A legendary Lions defender's success story

If S. Subramani's mother had her way, one of the best defenders in local footballing history would never have turned out for the Lions.

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"What I used to do was that I would sneak out from home and go play football with my friends from school," the 45 year-old tells FourFourTwo.

"Obviously, when I came home, I would have to go though the scoldings and all that."

When I came home, I would have to go though the scoldings and all that

- S. Subramani

On hindsight, slipping out from his Boon Lay home for kickabout sessions was the best thing the youngster could have done, as it marked the start of a successful journey in the sport which he remains closely involved in throughout these years.

“Prior to football, I was into long distance running - that was my strength then,” Subramani shared.

“I used to do both and was more serious in running as compared to football but only went into football more seriously when I was doing my ’A’ levels in my first year in JI (Jurong Institute) in 1990.” 

Tanjong Pagar were a side on the rise when Subramani joined

A conversation with a certain John Chia, who was the manager of the combined schools team, would see the then 18-year-old take the first step towards professional football.

“After the game where we lost 2-0 to Bedok Vocational Institute, he (Chia) approached me and asked if I was playing for a club or anything like that,” Subramani continued. “I replied, ‘No, I was just playing for my school and (was something I did) for fun’. He then invited me to attend the combined school trials and the rest is history.”

When I eventually started doing well in football, he wasn’t able to see it. That’s one of the things I feel sad about because I wanted to give him something to remember

- S. Subramani

Getting into the side after clearing the trials, the forward-turned-defender was named vice-captain of the Combined Schools team at the Asian School Games in China, in a squad which boasted the likes of Rafi Ali and Rudy Khairon.

But, this was also when tragedy struck, as his father passed away.

“When I was developing as a footballer, what saddened me was that my father was not able to see all the achievements as he left us in 1990,” Subramani added with a tinge of regret.

“He was the sole breadwinner in the family and worked so hard for us. It was a good but hard life we had... When I eventually started doing well in football, he wasn’t able to see it. That’s one of the things I feel sad about because I wanted to give him something to remember.”

Subramani lifted both the FA Cup and Singapore Cup with Tanjong Pagar United. Photo: Samawira Basri

1992 then saw Subramani make his first foray into competitive football when he joined Tiong Bahru United, a FAS Premier League team which was then coached by P.N. Sivaji.

“When I was in the pre-Olympic team, I was not playing with any club so Mr Sivaji asked me to join him at Tiong Bahru,” he noted.

I was then the first defender to win that that’s one of the things I still remember till today

- S. Subramani

“There were quite a number of household names like David Lee and Terry Pathmanthan there and it was like a dream come true to play with them as a youngster at about 20.”

National Service (NS) soon came calling for Subramani the following year. Upon completion of NS in 1996, he rejoined the Jaguars who had by then renamed as Tanjong Pagar United.

After two barren years, he helped a Robert Alberts-led Tanjong Pagar to a double in 1998 as they lifted both the FA Cup and Singapore Cup - his first trophies as a player, which also culminated in him bagging the S.League Player of the Year award.

“I was then the first defender to win that that’s one of the things I still remember till today," added Subramani.