Sundram must bring back the Dazzler

One year into the thankless job, Lions coach must shake off his annus horribilis and FAS distractions and reassert his identity, argues Neil Humphreys.

When V. Sundramoorthy was a young coach at Jurong FC, there were distant echoes of Kenny Dalglish.

Two young, rookie player-managers, still basking in the adulation of an adoring crowd, they initially enjoyed the best of both worlds.

This week marks the one-year anniversary of Sundram becoming Singapore’s national coach, the most thankless of jobs.

Their outstanding playing careers offered a degree of immunity in the dugout. The fact that both men seemed made for management felt like an added bonus.

Like Dalglish at Liverpool in the 80s’, Sundram took on the double duties of player-coach at Jurong in the Nineties and revelled in both roles. The Dazzler delivered on both sides of the white line.

And that cheeky grin never wavered.

Just as Dalglish remained the King of the Kop, Sundram remained a rock star.

These days he could be mistaken for Morrissey. Heaven knows he’s miserable now. Or at least he was, for the best part of a year.

This week marks the one-year anniversary of Sundram becoming Singapore’s national coach, the most thankless of jobs.

And he’s a different man now, a different manager.

To all intents and purposes, Sundram looked the wrong man for the job.

The infectious grin still makes the odd appearance, but the Dazzler has pretty much disappeared. A quieter, more sceptical manager has replaced him, a man struggling with erratic form, a sceptical media and an indifferent public.

After 13 games in charge, there have been eight defeats and only two wins.

By common consensus, the Lions bottomed out at the Suzuki Cup, where Sundram parked more buses than SBS with no reward.

The Lions were negative, humiliated and — most damningly of all — tedious.

Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines all demonstrated that the road to victory wasn’t always filled with six defenders.

To all intents and purposes, Sundram looked the wrong man for the job.

But that’s a slightly simplistic interpretation of his first 12 months in charge. In reality, Sundram was in the right place at the wrong time.

After a year in the hot-seat, Sundram seems caught between two stools, or two schools of managerial thought.

The 51-year-old is no rookie. He's a seasoned coach and a Malaysia Super League winner with the Lions XII. But he wandered headfirst into a hurricane.

First, he inherited Bernd Stange’s dazed and confused squad of schizophrenics. The German arrived with the best intentions, seeking to impose a Bundesliga-like philosophy of fast, youthful, overlapping, counterattacking football, without really acknowledging that Singapore is rather light on Bundesliga graduates.

His predecessor, Raddy Avramovic, the unapologetic pragmatist, recognised the Lions’ shortcomings and made the best of his resources. He didn’t turn the Lions into Bayern Munich. He just made them better. He relied on improved fitness, experienced pros and incessant drilling to get the job done. And it worked.

After a year in the hot-seat, Sundram seems caught between two stools, or two schools of managerial thought.

Sundram the Dazzler must obviously empathise with Stange’s idealism and the need for speed and invention.

But Sundram the caretaker coach had to follow Avramovic’s mantra, that the result was everything.

The Singaporean’s initial job description was already a handicap. A caretaker coach, a provisional role, a probationary period, whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t a ringing endorsement.

So for a year, Sundram heard a ticking clock and played safe. He recalled veterans like Daniel Bennett and Fahrudin Mustafić, settled on traditional banks of four and tried to bore the opposition into submission.

Singapore were tedious at the 2016 Suzuki Cup

The tactics at the Suzuki Cup felt like a retrograde step. No one was entertained, least of all Sundram. The happy-go-lucky coach at Jurong FC was a fading memory.

But again, there were mitigating circumstances. Underlying issues beyond Sundram’s control limited his resources. The Lions XII had previously sucked the lifeblood from a dying S.League. The national talent pool shrank as a consequence.

Avramovic benefitted from the tail end of the S.League’s halcyon days, when packed stadiums and decent sponsorship just about kept the production line going.

Unfortunately for Sundram, he turned up before dawn.

By the time Sundram was appointed, S.League stadiums were producing more tumbleweed than talent.

Fortunately, the work of the Football Association of Singapore's technical director Michel Sablon is slowly bearing fruit. His centralised, coaching blueprint is seeing better results at the age-group levels, but there is obviously going to be a time lag.

Both Sablon and the FAS have called for patience, recognising the gap between Avramovic’s Suzuki Cup kings and Sablon’s young pups. It may get worse before it gets better, darkest before the dawn and all that.

Unfortunately for Sundram, he turned up before dawn.

A dearth of talent at youth level was then obscured by the comedy of errors at the FAS Council elections. The campaign’s relentless chaos dominated everyone’s attention, which handed a double-edged sword to Sundram.

On one level, the Lions’ poor run of results was mostly forgotten, lost in a murky world of jackpot rooms and police raids.

Sundram slipped away from the back pages, out of sight and out of the public’s mind.

Perhaps Sundram is slowly finding his way. At the very least, the two-year contract extension grants him a little latitude – not to mention time and trust – to experiment and bed down his ideas.

However, one of his best performances pretty much got buried beneath much of the electioneering hogwash. The Lions’ excellent 0-0 draw in Bahrain at the end of March was notable for several reasons.

First, the result snapped a six-game losing streak against Bahrain. Second, the draw left Singapore in a promising position in their third and final qualifying round for the Asian Cup. And more importantly, the positive approach was a marked improvement on the insipid fare served at the Suzuki Cup.

Irfan Fandi, still only 19, slotted in confidently at centre-back alongside Daniel Bennett. While Safuwan Baharudin and Juma’at Jantan, the nominal wide men, were ordered to venture across the halfway line whenever the opportunity presented itself.

There was an aggression and an attacking endeavour present in Bahrain that was entirely absent at the Suzuki Cup.

Perhaps Sundram is slowly finding his way. At the very least, the two-year contract extension grants him a little latitude – not to mention time and trust – to experiment and bed down his ideas.

The coming weeks will certainly test his resolve.

Frankly, being drab and dour didn’t get Sundram anywhere. It’s time to bring back the Dazzler

A friendly against Myanmar (June 6) offers a warm-up before the critical Asian Cup qualifier against Chinese Taipei (June 10).

Lionel Messi and his Argentine holidaymakers will then provide the window dressing three days later.

After a year of caretaking, Sundram has the opportunity to build on the Bahrain draw, utilise home advantage in three key fixtures and make the job his own.

His trademark swagger, the devilish insouciance that once entertained a nation, should be channelled through the Lions.

If he’s going to lose, at least lose on his terms. Forget the fear. Play with panache. Leave the buses in the car park.

Frankly, being drab and dour didn’t get Sundram anywhere. It’s time to bring back the Dazzler.

Photos: FAS