Lionel Tan out to become a great Chinese centre-back for the Lions

This is Hougang United defender Lionel Tan’s first season in the S.League, but the 19-year-old has already set lofty goals of earning of an international call-up and captaining Singapore in the future – just what a certain Lim Tong Hai achieved… 

Lim Tong Hai represented Singapore with much dignity - earning 47 caps between 1989 to 1999, enjoyed a short reign in 1997 as captain before Nazri Nasir took over and was part of the 1998 Tiger Cup winning squad.

Since then, there has been a dearth of Chinese centre-backs in Singapore football and Tan is eager to buck that trend.

We all know there is a lack of Chinese players here in Singapore, especially centre-backs. We’ve (Ho) Wai Loon who’s a left back, (Ang) Zhi Wei and Emmeric (Ong) who are right-backs, Fabian (Kwok) who is a midfielder, Stanely (Ng) and Gabriel (Quak) who are wingers, but there’s no centre-backs and I really hope I can be the next one to step up

Born in 1997, he was too young to have watched the former in action but that has done nothing to stop him from being inspired by his achievements.

“I may not have watched him play, but I’ve heard so many stories about how good and solid a national defender he is,” Tan told FourFourTwo. “Obviously, I want to go on a similar path like him and it would be ideal if I can be remembered that way too.”

“We all know there is a lack of Chinese players here in Singapore, especially centre-backs. We’ve (Ho) Wai Loon who’s a left back, (Ang) Zhi Wei and Emmeric (Ong) who are right-backs, Fabian (Kwok) who is a midfielder, Stanely (Ng) and Gabriel (Quak) who are wingers, but there’s no centre-backs and I really hope I can be the next one to step up.

“I’m striving to become one of the best Chinese players for aspiring footballers to look up to, try to inspire more kids to play football and tell people that you can actually earn a living through football.”

lionel_tan_-_s.league2.jpg

Tan was surprised to find his name in the starting line-up in recent games

It could be some time before Tan realises his dream of representing the senior national team, but at least he is now one step closer after making his full S.League debut.

After coming on as a 61st-minute sub in the 2-1 defeat to Tampines Rovers, Tan was handed a shock start in the away game against Brunei DPMM last Saturday and acquitted himself well against the likes of Rafael Ramazotti and Billy Mehmet despite Hougang falling to a 2-0 defeat.

“Lionel fulfils all the attributes of a good modern centre-back. He’s physically strong with decent pace, good in aerial battles and is also confident on the ball. Most importantly, he has good attitude and good work ethic

“It was tough initially and I was understandably nervous,” he recalled. “But I had my teammates and coaches behind me and that made it easier for me.

“At this level, there’s obviously bound to be pressure on me and mistakes will occur but I tried not to let those factors affect me. Overall it was a good experience and hopefully with more games to come, I can settle down and start to play my own game more.”

Coach Philippe Aw has not been afraid to give youngsters opportunities this season, with under-21 players like Gareth Low, Ariyan Shamsuddin Malik, Amir Zalani and Antoine Viterale all given runouts in the first team so far.

The first-year Cheetahs tactician believes the sky’s the limit for the promising Tan.

lionel_tan_-_s.league.jpg

Tan watching his man closely

“Lionel fulfils all the attributes of a good modern centre-back,” said the 39-year-old. “He’s physically strong with decent pace, good in aerial battles and is also confident on the ball. Most importantly, he has good attitude and good work ethic.

“He can play a big role for us this season and has a bright future ahead of him if he keeps up his good work ethic and keeps learning from players like senior players like Atsushi Shirota.”

I was just 1.47m in secondary one and by the time I graduated (in secondary four), I was 1.8m which surprised me

Tan attributes his impressive 1.83m frame – ironically the same height as Tong Hai’s — to a growth spurt in his secondary school days, but revealed that there are downsides that come with it.

“I was just 1.47m in secondary one and by the time I graduated (in secondary four), I was 1.8m which surprised me,” recalled the former Singapore Sports School student. “It affected my performances a little then and I had issues with my knees, so I went to the gym to work on my strength.

“It does help as a centre-back to be big and strong in physique, but it does compromise a bit on my movement and agility which I’m still trying to work on.”

 lim_tong_hai_-_.jpg

Generations apart, but Tan hopes to emulate Lim Tong Hai. Photo: Weixiang Lim/FFT

Having kicked his first ball at the age of four, Tan waited patiently for a breakthrough and that came 12 years later in the 2013 Lion City Cup.

Along with peers like Irfan Fandi, Amiruldin Asraf and and Zharfan Rohaizad, he represented the National Football Academy (NFA) under-16s in the renowned youth competition where he played against the Arsenal Under-15s and NFA Under-15s – scoring in the second game.

“It was a real eye-opener for me, to be honest,” he reminisced. “It was my first time playing in front of big crowds and that’s what all footballers want.

He had hoped to make the step up to the Young Lion upon graduating from the NFA, but such a move did not materialise so he made the decision to join Home United’s Prime League (PL) squad and be reunited with coach Robin Chitrakar in 2016.

“Preparation-wise, it was not the most ideal because the team went to Japan for training while I had to stay in Singapore to prepare for my ‘O’ Levels, so my fitness was a bit of an issue. I went down with cramps in the first game and missed the next game against Eintracht Frankfurt because I was unfit, but I’m still happy to have competed in this tournament.”

Tan continued to excel the following year, captaining the NFA Under-17s in the absence of regular captain Gareth Low and was one of the six nominees for the Dollah Kassim Award that year.