Lost Boys: YOG captain Jeffrey Lightfoot

The 2010 YOG bronze medallists were tipped for great things, but only a handful of them are still pursuing a career in professional football. One of those who has faded from the scene is then-captain Jeffrey Lightfoot. He discussed with FourFourTwo what went wrong for his batch, his failed comeback attempt and what's ahead for his future...  

Throughout the hour-long interview, Jeffrey Lightfoot sighed several times, as memories of the past flooded back.

Seven years ago, a talented bunch of 15-year-olds captured the imagination of many Singaporeans by clinching bronze at the inaugural Youth Olympics Games (YOG). Great things were expected of them in the years to come.

Seven years ago, a talented bunch of 15-year-olds captured the imagination of many Singaporeans by clinching bronze at the inaugural Youth Olympics Games (YOG). Great things were expected of them in the years to come.

However, it proved to be a false dawn, with only a handful still pursuing professional football — none of them have made it to the national team.

Five are currently on the books of the Garena Young Lions – namely goalkeeper Fashah Iskandar, defenders Illyas Lee, Dhukhilan Jeevamani, midfielder Ammirul Emmran, as well as forward Muhaimin Suhaimi, while winger Jonathan Tan is with S.League side Balestier Khalsa.

But things could have been starkly different, Lightfoot shared wistfully, had then-coach Kadir Yahaya stayed on after the tournament. The latter left the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) set-up in December 2010 due to alleged dispute over backroom staff arrangements and was replaced by Japanese coach Takuma Koga in April 2011.

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The YOG squad that captured the imagination of Singaporeans. Photo: SYOGOC

“We just felt like we weren't properly taken care of,” Lightfoot told FourFourTwo over lunch at Kraftwich.

“After coach Kadir left, coach Koga came and that was a bit tough for us. The communication wasn’t very good and we couldn’t really click with him.

After coach Kadir left, coach Koga came and that was a bit tough for us. The communication wasn’t very good and we couldn’t really click with him.

“That’s not to say he's a bad coach; he's a good coach, it’s just that we couldn’t really understand him. At the same time, things like exams and projects started to come in; it’s quite tough lah, at least for me who went to poly (polytechnic).

Coupled with growing school commitments, things began to turn pear-shaped.

Jeffrey added: “Also, I was already thinking at the time if I wanted to be a footballer or study, because I always felt that studies are very important. After Koga left, a few different coaches came and go. We felt that there wasn’t any continuity in terms of coaching staff.

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Singapore clinched bronze at the 2010 YOG. Photo: SYOGOC

“If you look at other teams, the coach usually follows along all the way from under-14 level if everything goes well. For us, we didn’t have that; we were then coached by technical director Slobodan (Pavkovic) and some others.

“A few of us then got promoted to Young Lions, some didn’t and some dropped out because they didn’t want to play, so the squad’s totally broken up. There was really no continuity. We were under the impression that we’re going to stick all the way until the Young Lions.”

“The main thing is — if coach Kadir was with us the whole time, we could have done a bit better, at least for a few players.”

REMINISCING ABOUT YOG

Looking back on the fond memories of that YOG campaign, Lightfoot lauded the influence of Kadir, who took charge of the team just six months prior to the tournament.

It was not easy, considering the team had just finished bottom of Group A at the 2009 Asian Youth Games, without a single point to their names after defeats to China, Iran and Thailand respectively.

From the first day, you can see he meant business; he was showing us videos of our AYG Games and we were just analysing everything like technical staff do, which was eye-opening at that level

“After the AYG (Asian Youth Games) in 2009, we were a bit down and not really motivated because we didn't perform well. Adding to that, our previous coach Siva (David Sivalingam) suddenly passed away (in November that year) so we were kind of in a limbo,” he shared.

“After that, we found out it’s Kadir who’s going to coach us. We knew who he was, but we didn't really know his coaching style; other coaches were telling us ‘oh, you’re going to be coached well’.

“From the first day, you can see he meant business; he was showing us videos of our AYG Games and we were just analysing everything like technical staff do, which was eye-opening at that level.”

That led to a huge improvement in the team’s displays, going into the YOG. The young squad grew in confidence as they stood equal to quality teams including Tottenham Hotspur under-15s.

After beating Zimbabwe 3-1 in the opening YOG game, the Cubs subsequently edged European nation Montenegro 3-2 – with Lightfoot scoring the equaliser to inspire a comeback from 2-1 down in front of a sell-out crowd at the Jalan Besar Stadium.

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Lightfoot scoring a vital goal at the 2010 YOG. Photo: SYOGOC

“I remember the crowd was really on our side after we scored the first goal and we were feeling really motivated,” he recalled fondly. “When I scored, I was just really, really happy because it was like six months of hard work - training every day and sacrificing my studies at secondary three.

“We just focused on football during that period because we know that the YOG’s going to be a really big thing. I could see my parents in the crowd and they were like so happy. I wish I could just go up and hug them at that moment.”

I remember the crowd was really on our side after we scored the first goal and we were feeling really motivated

The particular moment Lightfoot knew they had a special coach with them, was prior to the playoffs for the bronze medal.

Team morale had sunk to an all-time low after a shock 2-0 defeat to Haiti in the semi-finals, but Kadir refused to let his team soak in misery as he barred them from access to newspapers and ban mobile phones during certain periods thereafter.

It was precisely because of this, that the young Cubs managed to bounce back to thrash Montenegro 4-1 in the bronze medal match a couple of days later.

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The fans turned out in full force at the YOG

“I remember we were very down the night after because we didn’t expect that we would lose that game and we hardly spoke to each other,” he shared.

“We were starting to get attention from the public at that time, so coach told us to remove all the distractions such as Facebook and just block out everything.

“No one reacted badly to that because we really respected him and there wasn’t a coach like him. Also, we had psychologists during the whole tournament and they helped us a lot in terms of motivational stuff and advice.”