Rafi has it all to do at Tampines
The new head coach steps out on to the football field for the first time, after years of dedicated service as a highly popular player. His predecessor has left the job under unfortunate circumstances, as the defending champions find themselves in unfamiliar territory in the league table. The pressure was just too much, they say. Targets are set high at a club steeped in so much recent success.
It's a scenario most football fans are familiar with, unless you have been trekking in North Korea recently, in hibernation or just plain hiding under a rock. But instead of Manchester United and David Moyes, we have Salim Moin's sudden resignation at S.League heavyweights Tampines Rovers. For Ryan Giggs, read Rafi Ali.
While the surrounds of Clementi Stadium might not be as glamorous as the Theatre of Dreams, expectations are sky high as the Stags look to make it four league titles in a row. They are striving to become only the second local club to have achieved such a feat, but first they can ill afford to drop valuable points like they have done this year. Competition from the likes of a resurgent Warriors FC and the Steve Kean-led revolution at DPMM FC show that there are plenty of teams eager and capable of stepping up to the plate if the champions falter.
Losing to Hougang and Woodlands was bad enough, but crashing out of AFC Cup competition in the group stages appears to be the straw that broke the camel's back. The Stags needed only a draw to progress against Nay Pyi Taw but instead of attacking the opposition, decided to sit back and settle for the goalless draw. Just like with Moyes at United, such conservatism did not serve Salim well as the club from Myanmar grabbed a decisive goal to knock out Tampines.
Which brings us back to Rafi Ali, former Singapore international and interim head coach of Tampines Rovers. Just like Giggs at Old Trafford, the former Tampines midfielder has been met with both cautious optimism and early calls for the appointment to be made permanent. But unlike his Manchester United counterpart, a return to 'the Rovers way' and an attacking mentality did not bring about a win in his first outing.
Rafi set up his team to attack on Thursday evening, reverting back to an adventurous back three but the home side visibly struggled against a Jekyll-and-Hyde Albirex Niigata (Singapore) outfit. For 60 minutes, the Stags huffed and puffed but failed to blow the Japanese team's defence down. Their coach could be seen repeatedly coming out of his technical area to bark out instructions, but still there was to be no reply to Shuhei Hotta's early opener. It took till the 75 minute before Luis Closa grabbed an equaliser, but that was all the hosts could muster in the end as the teams came away with a share of the points.
Despite this, the new head coach can take some positives from the last half an hour of the game, when Tampines could even have taken all three points home but for a little bit of luck they were lacking. Rafi's substitutions looked to have paid off, as the introduction of Ang Zhi Wei and Aleksandar Duric turned the game on its head. Both players started making a nuisance of themselves on the wings, creating golden opportunities for forwards Miljan Mrdakovic and Noh Alam Shah which Rafi conceded that "they would have scored on any other day".
There is little doubt that this Tampines team is filled with plenty of individual talent, but what was lacking on the night was a sense of teamwork and conviction in the game-plan - not too surprising given the sudden coaching change. It is something that the coach has observed too, as he summed up their performance after the match against Albirex.
"They worked extremely hard because we don’t have much time to prepare for this game and time was not on our side. Despite that, they gave their all," Rafi said.
"I hope the boys realise that we have to keep working. It’s a matter of getting their confidence back up. I think what they lacked is the composure, conviction and confidence. As a coach, the rest of the technical staff [and I] will try to make trainings fun and motivate them as much as possible."
With tough matches coming up against fellow title contenders Warriors and Home United, the new coach will need to iron the kinks out and get his team firing on all cylinders again. Time might just be a luxury he does not have though, with several former S-League winning coaches on the market.
Would Steve Darby or Richard Bok welcome a return to the spotlight? Only time will tell, but for now Rafi has it all to do, at a club where only the very best will suffice.