How to save the S.League, Part I: Shut down the Young Lions for good

In the first of a four-part series, best-selling author and FourFourTwo columnist Neil Humphreys examines some of the radical changes that may be required to save Singapore’s only professional sports league.

Fielding a team of raw kids in a professional league is rare in world football and a failed experiment in Singapore.

If the Young Lions are scrapped, the move could actually save them.

The Young Lions represent another example of our impatient tendency to seek a short cut through a process that has worked across two centuries

Even Manchester United’s ‘Class of ’92’ acknowledge the truth. Alan Hansen was right. You win nothing with kids.

It’s a longstanding lesson that the Young Lions and the Football Association of Singapore refuse to learn.

In his unforgettable analysis of United’s opening-day defeat in 1995, Hansen ridiculed the Red Devils. He believed their boys couldn’t do the work of men.

That's because they couldn’t, not entirely. 

Paul Scholes has always recognised the influence of United’s senior pros, along with the uplifting impact of Eric Cantona’s return from suspension. The Frenchman scored the winner in the 1996 FA Cup Final, confirming United’s Double.

Every week the Young Lions take on bigger, stronger opponents

Indeed, United’s line-up at Wembley that day was a veritable who’s who of dependable pros. Their spine consisted of Peter Schmeichel, Gary Pallister, David May, Roy Keane, Cantona and Andy Cole.

Denis Irwin defied his body clock to chug along the right flank.

It’s a wonder the Young Lions aren’t sent out with their legs strapped together and wearing eye patches to really make it a challenge.

The kids were always in good company at United, just as they were at Barcelona.

Their famed academy La Masia was considered the football factory for PlayStation pin-ups for a decade, but the boys from Barcelona never played all at once.

The 2009 Champions League final witnessed the first appearance of the holy trinity of Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez in the European showpiece, but they were surrounded by proven pedigree.

Carles Puyol, Sylvinho, Theirry Henry and Samuel Eto’o were still around.

Nascent talent was always introduced gradually, player by player, to allow raw gems to gain a bit of spit and polish from an established core of regulars. 

However, as always, Singapore football knows better.

Barca players are brought along gradually, not thrown to the wolves

The Young Lions represent another example of our impatient tendency to seek a short cut through a traditional process that has worked rather well for established leagues across two centuries.

The powers-that-be even brag about it. On Wikipedia and elsewhere, the Young Lions are trumpeted as one of the only clubs in the world that impose an age restriction and then sends them to play in a top-flight professional league. 

It’s a wonder the Young Lions aren’t sent out with their legs strapped together and wearing eye patches to really make it a challenge.

After all, the handicapping, under-23 experiment is going so well, isn’t it?

Time for the Mercy rule

In the last round of matches prior to the international break, the Young Lions were thumped 8-0 by leaders and defending champions Albirex Niigata.

Their previous meeting ended 5-0 in the Japanese club’s favour. There was also a 6-1 hammering against Home United

The kids must be disoriented and disillusioned, holding their breath in the hope this sustained punishment will end soon

As it stands, the under-23’s are rock bottom after 10 games, with a solitary point and a dignity-stripping goal difference of minus 26.

The gap between top and bottom is already 27 points, not so much a chasm, but a catastrophe. 

Sending out the cubs to fend for themselves as part of a laudable, Darwinist exercise is one thing, but this is akin to water torture.

The kids must be disoriented and disillusioned, holding their breath in the hope that this systematic, sustained punishment will end soon.

But the bureaucratic inertia, that inability to accept and then scrap a failed experiment, is crippling the Young Lions’ confidence. 

Their inability to realistically compete with older, more experienced opponents with superior financial and foreign resources has achieved little beyond an unwanted collection of wooden spoons.

If they finish bottom again this season, it’ll be the third time in the last five seasons. They finished second bottom in the other two. Between 2010-2012, they finished fourth bottom.

[UP NEXT: What is there to show for this long-standing experiment?]