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Introducing S.League promotion could allow some fallen Singapore giants to rise

FAS’ proposed promotion-relegation model could make local games more credible and perhaps allow some big clubs to return, argues Neil Humphreys…

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Leeds United, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Aston Villa and Derby County have plenty in common with Woodlands Wellington, Tanjong Pagar United, Gombak United and Sembawang Rangers.

For the likes of Tanjong Pagar and Gombak, there is no such path back to glory. It’s a case of pay up or perish

Stop laughing for a moment and consider the similarities.

Each of the clubs dominate – or once dominated – within their respective towns and communities. Their proud histories are well-established, relatively speaking, and they all enjoy a loyal fan base, despite slipping from the top flight.

To a degree, they are sleeping giants. The clubs no longer feature in elite competition, when their history and local support suggests they should.

But the biggest difference between the English and Singaporean clubs – apart from finances, infrastructure and playing pedigree, obviously – is the road to redemption still remains open for the English. Promotion offers salvation.

Wolves, for instance, are top of the Championship and heading for a return to the English Premier League.

Tanjong Pagar last competed in the S.League in 2014

For the likes of Tanjong Pagar and Gombak, on the other hand, there is no such path back to glory. In a one-division professional competition, it’s a case of pay up for a place at the top table or perish.

So the mooted relegation and promotion model could change the arbitrary set-up of the S.League.

S.League sides bring superior revenue streams and administrative experience, exceedingly rare commodities in the NFL

The Football Association of Singapore (FAS) are currently considering a two-tier league, the strengths and weaknesses of which must all be evaluated. But the biggest positive, one that is seldom addressed, is the possibility of resurrecting dormant powerhouses.

FAS vice-president S Thavaneson suggested earlier this year that the financial gulf between the S.League and the National Football League (NFL) could dissuade NFL clubs from pursuing promotion.

On average, S.League clubs operate on annual budgets of at least $1 million. NFL clubs can struggle to reach five figures each season.

So Thavaneson highlighted the potential option of merging NFL sides with former S.League clubs. It’s an idea well worth exploring.

S.League sides bring superior revenue streams and administrative experience, exceedingly rare commodities in the haphazard, occasionally farcical world of the NFL.

Wolves are on track for a return to the EPL

At times, the S.League can feel like a model of professionalism compared to its amateur counterpart.

Last week, Yishun Sentek Mariners won the Division 1 title without kicking a ball in anger (though they have been angry on the pitch of late, as you will see below).

Yishun needed a victory against Katong FC to be sure of the silverware, so Katong obliged by not having enough players to field a team

Yishun needed a victory against Katong FC to be sure of the silverware, so Katong obliged by not having enough players to field a team.

The trophy was won via a walkover. 

It was the second time in as many months Yishun had made headlines for less salubrious reasons.

In November, phone cameras captured a brawl between Singapore Armed Forces Sports Association (SAFSA) and Yishun players at Jalan Besar Stadium.

Police officers intervened as the match ended in ignominy. Players and officials were chased and kicked and a footballer was sent to hospital after being booted in the abdomen. 

Woodlands Wellington in their S.League days

Just a year earlier, a Singapore FA Cup first-round match between SAFSA and Balestier United Recreation Club was halted with only two minutes to go. A fight broke out. The referee intervened and the game was later abandoned.

If nothing else, a merger with sit-out S.League clubs should, theoretically, improve the discipline and organisation of NFL teams.

On the flip side, the amateur game certainly breeds those glorious, devoted zealots that grassroots football thrives upon

On the flip side, the amateur game certainly breeds those glorious, devoted zealots that grassroots football thrives upon.

That organic, hardcore support allows cash-strapped sides to survive, hand to mouth, year after year. Frankly it’s an authentic, local identity that foreign S.League clubs will never nurture, despite their best intentions.

A merger between an NFL side and an S.League sit-out club would allow them to pool resources and follow the tried and tested route taken by all respected, global leagues: promotion.

And therein lies a fundamental failing of the S.League – the long struggle for respectability.

[NEXT: The S.League - a hybrid of the worst Australia and Scotland offers]