Lee Man Hon: The 1994 team had players who couldn't run, but could change a game
"I'm running a clothing store in China Square these days, called Britta's Corner," Lee Man Hon tells FourFourTwo as we sit down for coffee. "You should come check us out."
Whenever we went for long distance runs, Fandi, Sundram and Tong Hai were the ones always at the back. But put them into the game, they would do the job for you
We're in Tiong Bahru, where Lee has been staying since his childhood days. The ex-national player first broke on to the scene as a precocious 17-year-old left midfielder with a cultured left foot, and made his name as part of the 1994 Malaysia Cup-winning team. He played for Singapore Armed Forces Football Club in the first season of the S.League, and went on to turn out for Tiong Bahru United, Marine Castle and Tampines Rovers.
Lee has in his own words, been "outside of the football scene in Singapore, looking in" for more than 10 years now, and like the rest of the country watched on helplessly as Singapore crashed out of the recent AFF Suzuki Cup.
You are obviously still passionate about Singapore football, did you consider a move into coaching after your playing career ended?
After I retired, I actually continued to be involved as a coach with NFL side Tiong Bahru for two years, but I decided it was not something I want to do. The support just isn't there.
We were playing an FA Cup quarter final and one of the linesmen did not turn up. Can you believe it? We were playing with just one linesman. And the pitch the game was played on, Kallang Practice pitch, it was rock hard, you bounce the ball, it goes up to two metres. How do you play football like that? Sometimes, games were cancelled because the association failed to book the stadium or referees didn't come. I slowly fell out of love.
What did you make of Singapore's exit from the AFF Suzuki Cup group stages, given that we were the defending champions?
From the three games they played, you can see that there was a general lack of direction and leadership. There was no shape, no pattern of play, no understanding between the players. You got the sense that the players had no ideas, they didn't know what to do with the ball.
The only thing they tried to do was to get the ball to Khairul Amri but there was no support for him at all. Everytime he got the ball and pushed forward, the other four midfield players were twenty or thirty metres away. No one was on hand to support him. Khairul Amri is a player who is quite good with the ball. Even when he was still a young player, we already could see that he was an intelligent player who could play football. But in this tournament, he didn't show that side of his game at all, he played like a battering ram, like Noh Alam Shah, but he doesn't have the physique to play that kind of game.
Tell us more about this perceived lack of leadership in the team. Singapore's not exactly lacking in veterans, are we?
There was no leadership on the field. Sorry to say this, but Shahril Ishak is not a good enough captain. You compare him with the players before him, Fandi (Ahmad), (Lim) Tong Hai, Aide (Iskandar), S. Subramani, all the captains and vice-captains I have played under, they were players who really showed leadership on the field. In the past, when Fandi tells you what to do, he made bloody sure you did it. If you were there in the stadium, or watching on TV, you would have seen Fandi tracking back, shouting at players to wake them up.
Shahril really pales in comparison. When the chips are down, the captain has to be the one to rally the troops, to motivate them, to scream at players to wake them up, but he was too quiet, he didn't do much to guide the young players, he was just playing his own game and in fact it was Hariss who was the one who was the one shouting at his teammates. I have nothing against Shahril, he's not a bad player, but he shouldn't be the captain.
So honestly, I think the lack of leadership from the senior players played a part in the poor performance because this was a very young team, you really need the captain to guide them. When I first came into the national team as a young player, there were so many strong characters like Fandi, Tong Hai, Kadir (Yahaya) and Jang Jung and you need to have these sort of characters for a team to be successful.