S.League fans should be trusted, not controlled

The farce over Hougang’s banners and a sterile night at Jalan Besar shows that supporters really must be left alone to build their own identity, fan base and atmosphere, argues Neil Humphreys... 

Toa Payoh has a famous viewing tower in its town park. The imposing structure has provided the backdrop for many wedding photos since the 1970s.

Being in Singapore, of course, it’s a viewing tower that allows no viewing.

The door is permanently padlocked. Special permission is required to gain access. The viewing public is not trusted to do its viewing in public.

It’s a Singapore thing.

If every club had a similarly crazy gang, then the S.League wouldn’t be on life-support. The Hools turn Hougang Stadium into a real football home for heartlanders.

That perceived lack of trust, the need to nanny the state at every opportunity, has of course filtered down to the S.League and its long-suffering supporters.

Just ask the magnificent Hougang Hools.

If every club had a similarly crazy gang, then the S.League wouldn’t be on life-support. The Hools turn Hougang Stadium into a real football home for heartlanders.

They bring their A-game, home and away. They also bring their banners.

At Choa Chu Kang on Thursday, they were told to take down their banners.

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The offending piece in question

According to a remarkable Facebook post from independent eyewitness, Eddy Hirono, the Hools were advised by stadium security to remove their striking handiwork.

The explanation was reportedly given that the banners exceeded the maximum size of 1m x 1m, with officials citing regulations that were tough to pin down.

Apparently, the large banners restricted the view of other supporters.

If the game was intoxicating, the atmosphere was funereal, encapsulating the mammoth task ahead for the new Football Association of Singapore’s Council.

As Hirono’s photo pointed out, the banners were draped over a ledge. They blocked only the concrete’s view. The concrete didn’t seem particularly bothered.

Nor did supporters and officials at other S.League clubs on previous occasions. The Hools have carried their banners across the country without complaint.

Of all the serious issues that the S.League currently has, the size of a supporter's banner really isn't one of them.

But it’s this obsessive attention to insignificant detail, the deep addiction to micromanaging and the underlying lack of trust between officialdom and Joe Public that will alienate what’s left of the S.League support base.

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Hougang fans have always been vocal in their support

And then they’ll be no banners because they’ll be no one left to make them.

A day later, enormous banners were stretched across Jalan Besar Stadium. But they were different. They were there to partially cover the vast banks of empty seats. Those banners were much larger than the apparent 1m x 1m maximum, but they were official banners. Those banners were controlled and sanitised, rather like the occasion.

The football itself was terrific. Home United and Tampines Rovers in particular treated the crowd to an end-to-end humdinger of a contest and five goals.

The spectacle was played on an artificial pitch at an artificial venue with an artificial atmosphere.

Singapore’s eternal evergreen, Daniel Bennett, even found space at the near post to knock in a fine header. He was clearly delighted. We could hear him. All the players inside Jalan Besar could be heard. Everything on the pitch was audible.

If the game was intoxicating, the atmosphere was funereal, encapsulating the mammoth task ahead for the new Football Association of Singapore’s Council.

The crowd was small and quiet. Tampines and Home fans were spread out, isolated and hard to spot. They were dislocated and subdued, which was hardly surprising.

The spectacle was played on an artificial pitch at an artificial venue with an artificial atmosphere.

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S.League games are never muted with the Hools around

Jalan Besar is home to neither Tampines nor Home, with the renovated Tampines Stadium not yet ready.

The muted occasion underlined the pressing need for S.League clubs to play within their communities or against clubs playing within their communities.

There was nothing authentic about two teams playing at a neutral venue on a poor playing surface with a handful of fans scattered across a single stand.

An S.League fanbase cannot be created or controlled from on high. It’s not an NParks garden that can be instantly manufactured through central planning and micromanaging.

Whatever the logistical reasons, it’s not fair to throw two clubs into a neutral stadium and then point the finger at supposedly fickle supporters for failing to create a decent atmosphere.

As it stands, the biggest football centres in the country – Tampines, Woodlands, Sembawang, Tanjong Pagar, Clementi and Gombak – are either not playing in the S.League or, in the Stags’ case, playing at Jalan Besar.

In other words, traditional powerhouses in the north, south, east and west of the island are currently not represented in their national league.

And yet Hougang United, one of the only clubs with strong community ties and wonderful supporters, get told to take their banners down.

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The stadiums can be filled up once again, if they can be a little open-midned

It’s that exasperating inability to see the wood for the trees again, to see only petty regulations instead of the uplifting sight of a passionate fan club.

From Madrid to the Maracana, history has demonstrated that allegiance come from within, from the gut, which takes time, patience, independence and a little leeway to build across a community.

An S.League fanbase cannot be created or controlled from on high.  It’s not an NParks garden that can be instantly manufactured through central planning and micromanaging.

Nor can it be nurtured in an unfamiliar environment like Jalan Besar.

Guidance helps, but the best growth will always be organic.  The Hougang Hools are proof of that.

They should be championed, not chastised.

Rather than obsess over the size of their banners, we should be grateful that they’re willing to fly the S.League flag in the first place.

Photos: Hougang United Supporters' Club