The new S.League season a wonderful throwback unto yesteryear

A lively contest in the heartlands was enough to convince Neil Humphreys that the new competition feels like a throwback to the old, halcyon days of cheering, swearing, packed crowds and popcorn. 

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The venue was carefully chosen. Hougang Stadium was a neglected artery in the heartlands last season, the ramshackle home of the S.League wooden spooners. Squeezed in between a forlorn public swimming pool and a mature housing estate, the grounds offered an accurate barometer of the S.League’s alleged renaissance.

Tampines Rovers’ first game at Jurong West was always going to be a magnet for the fickle and the curious, those who wanted to see and be seen. Build the hype around Jermaine Pennant and they will come. That much was obvious. Many came for Pennant. The others came for Pennant’s wife.

But the six-goal humdinger between Tampines and Geylang was never going to be an accurate yardstick for S.League interest. And even when Lionel Messi has never had to prove he can do it on a wet Wednesday night in Stoke, the S.League was still made to prove itself on a balmy Thursday night in Hougang.

There was the ambient sound of an authentic football match, the sound of a dormant S.League waking from its decade-long slumber.

And it did. It really did.

They came. They saw. They bought popcorn.

Turning left at the swimming pool and towards the main stand at Hougang Stadium was to take a step back in time, to be transported back to the late 1990s. All that was missing was Cher singing Believe on that weird auto-tune thing (that was the biggest hit in 1999, the last time the S.League could regularly fill community venues like Hougang Stadium. This isn’t about Cher.)

They believed at Hougang, hundreds of them. In recent seasons, the only obstacles outside an S.League stadium five minutes before kickoff were the balls of tumbleweed drifting past the Singapore Pools outlet.

Hougang's match against Home represented the true spirit of the S.League

But there were queues of real people, buying real tickets, paid tickets, too, not complementaries handed out to sponsors and random passersby in a transparent bid to artificially inflate attendance figures (allegedly.)

Three volunteers gleefully ripped tickets to accommodate the shuffling crowd in shorts and slippers as kick-off approached. An overeager Chinese guy tried to slip in with a couple of ticket-waving friends and was summarily sent back to the ticket counter, with chin furtively tucked into chest.

In the past, a ticketless supporter had more chance of being dragged into the stadium, handed a pair of plastic clappers and ordered to sit with the unhinged drummers.

But Singapore’s only professional sport had dovetailed with Singapore’s favourite pastime. There were queues; queues for everything. The drinks stall, the popcorn stand, the ticket counter, the toilet, everyone was doing the harmless shuffle. It was the ambient sound of an authentic football match, the sound of a dormant S.League waking from its decade-long slumber.

It didn’t feel like a national project. It felt like a football match, filled with men, women and children laughing at other men with potbellies.

Across the pitch, on the far side of the stadium and facing the main stand sat aliens, or at least alien images, something seldom witnessed at an S.League game. They were supporters. People faced people, a common phenomenon at football stadia across the world, but an unfamiliar concept in recent S.league seasons where main stand ticket holders faced banks of empty seats, strategically placed flags or, if they were at Jalan Besar, a wall.

But there were eyeballs everywhere, on all sides of Hougang, some 2,307 pairs of them, gathering to essentially watch last season’s wooden spooners host a young Home United side hoping that the Fandi brothers might sprinkle a little family DNA pixie dust on proceedings.

And the crowd was gloriously messy and uncoordinated. Songs were started and neglected halfway through. The Cheetahs’ genuinely funny repertoire included the incongruous I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles, West Ham’s anthem, Depeche Mode’s I Just Can’t Get Enough and Manchester City’s Yaya Toure chant, which was both clumsily and brilliantly adapted to suit M “Anu” Anumathan (and the rising midfielder reciprocated with a bullish display).

The chanting, singing and swearing was retro, scratchy and hissy, but organic, like listening to a vinyl record, as opposed to the centralized, orchestrated plastic clappers that often dominated at Lions XII matches.

The 2,307-strong crowd was treated to 90 minutes of excellent action

In the earliest days of the Lions XII experiment, the matching happy clappers, all neatly daubed in red and white, occasionally felt like a national project rather than a sporting occasion, as if a KPI box was being ticked somewhere under a heading marked “build the Singapore identity in subtle, spontaneous fashion.”

But Hougang Stadium wasn’t shackled by such cynical undertones. It didn’t feel like a national project. It felt like a football match, filled with men, women and children laughing at other men with potbellies singing I Just Can’t Get Enough between swigs of Sarsi.

The game was blessed with just one goal, albeit a cracker of a free-kick from Hougang’s new Croatian recruit Stipe Plazibat. But no one complained about the paucity of entertainment and no one left, putting paid to the myth that rugby scores are expected at every game to justify the price of admission (the Tampines-Geylang contest had six goals, but made for a shambolic spectacle. Hougang’s remarkable tactical discipline and defensive organisation were far more enjoyable to watch.)

When the referee confirmed Hougang’s unexpected victory, the primal roar of relief rolled through the stand. For a fleeting moment, they partied like it was 1999, when the S.League ruled.

There’s a long way to go of course. One fixture doesn’t define a season, but it does offer a slither of hope. It’s as if there’s a quiet, collective acknowledgement to save what’s left of one’s face after the Lions XII departure. Whatever eggs are left might as well be thrown in the only basket Singapore football has.

The S.League may just have a bright future, if it continues to look like its old self.

Photos: S.League