Unheralded Imran: He who could not refuse a 16th S.League season

Imran Sahib has played in 15 S.League seasons but the veteran has rarely been featured by the local media. Having come out of retirement this year, the full-back gave FourFourTwo an in-depth interview on why he came back and his solitary Suzuki Cup medal... 

In 2016, a number of notable local players hung up their boots, including Imran Sahib who had previously played in the S.League for 15 seasons.

The four-time S.League winner was in contention to earn a contract extension with Home United after some impressive cameos and a best-ever goalscoring season (four goals), but the influx of former LionsXII players meant the club opted against retaining his services.

Imran Sahib Fact File

  • Born: October 12, 1982
  • Clubs: Sembawang Rangers (2001), Home United (2002 to 2004, 2005 to 2006), Young Lions (2005), Woodlands Wellington (2007), Tampines Rovers (2008 to 2014), Home United (2015)
  • International caps (goals): 4 (0)
  • Honours: S.League title (2003, 2011, 2012, 2013), Singapore Cup (2003, 2005), League Cup (2007), AFF Suzuki Cup (2004)

With a lack of alternative offers, Imran chose to give up the sport he loved the most.

“The 2015 season was pretty good, I thought,” the 34-year-old told FourFourTwo. “Although I didn’t play as much as I would have liked, I made some significant contributions and I’ve never scored so many goals in a season before.

“Those were sweet memories and showed that I can still contribute. But I understand the club’s decision and I did not bear any grudges against them.”

A year away from professional football

Imran’s passion for football meant he could not stay away from the game for long, as he spent his retired days coaching and playing at amateur level.

Through the help of former Woodlands Wellington teammate Bah Mamadou, he managed to secure freelance coaching gigs with Springfield Secondary School, Boys’ Home and Football First Academy.

The veteran even represented Yishun Sentek Mariners in the National Football League (NFL) Division One alongside other former S.League players like Aliff Shafaein and Shahir Hamzah, before subsequently turning out for Gymkhana in the Island Wide League (IWL) for the second half of the season.

Imran continued to keep fit despite retiring in 2016. Photo: Amirul Haziq

Despite his advancing years, Imran also continued to stay fit by going to the gym five days per week.

It was a good thing he did so, as Tampines came calling at the tail-end of the 2016 season.

“I got a call from (then-Tampines coach) Akbar (Nawas); he told me he was looking for players for the new season and asked whether I’m interested to come back,” said Imran.

I’ve done this (playing professional football) for a long time and it was quite scary to have nothing to look forward to after quitting the game

“Of course, I was — I still have the passion for the game. I’ve done this (playing professional football) for a long time and it was quite scary to have nothing to look forward to after quitting the game.

“But it wasn’t a straightforward decision. I needed a few weeks to think through properly on whether to do so because it’s quite difficult at this age. In the end, I decided to make a return because I didn’t do too well in the 2014 and 2015 seasons and I didn’t want to end that way. I want to finish on a high."

Those sessions in the gym certainly helped as Imran cleared the mandatory 2.4km fitness test in 9 minutes 22 seconds – three seconds better than his last timing clocked in 2015.

That was despite having to cope with a grade two tear in his thigh, which he sustained during the team’s pre-season trip to Malaysia.  

Starting out in 2001

Before he turned out for Tampines, Imran used to play for Sembawang

As he shared, his obsession with fitness started way back in 2001 when he broke onto the scene as a 19-year-old with the now-defunct Sembawang Rangers.

Freshly promoted from the club’s under-18s, the young Imran went through a strict training regime with the senior team under popular Thai coach Vorawan Chitavanich.

While he was unused to the harsh training schedule, it would lay the right foundations for him to mature as a player.

It’s like I have to mop the muddy pitch at Yishun Stadium till it shines

“I couldn’t let myself down fitness-wise because Vorawan pushed me like hell and I had to be first all the time,” he shared. “It’s all about discipline and hard work under him.

“I remember how he set a rule that everyone has to juggle the ball 250 times every morning, if not we can’t start training! It was like hell, but that’s how we young players developed our basics.

“I had to sweep, mop the pitch, wash the bibs and prepare water before joining the senior team’s training, then repeat the same routine after training. It’s like I had to mop the muddy pitch at Yishun Stadium till it shined! Thinking back, it gave me the right upbringing as a young player.”

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A lack of offers in 2016 resulted in his retirement

Apart from that, training alongside legendary Thai players like Niweat Siriwong, Tawan Sripan and Thawatchai Ongtrakul was a real eye-opener for Imran.

“They were star players, but didn’t behave as so and were always welcoming of young players like me,” he recalled. “They mixed with the locals very well and it was like a big family.

“The things they did in training were just incredible. I remember how you just couldn’t get the ball off Tawan in training and there’s so many things to learn from these players.”

After a season with the Stallions, Imran moved to Home United where he won an S.League and Singapore Cup double in 2003 and was involved in the club’s run to the semi-finals of the 2004 AFC Cup.

The full-back then went to Young Lions for half a season in 2005, before re-joining Home and playing for the Protectors till the end of the 2006 season. He went to Woodlands Wellington the following year before being reunited with mentor Vorawan at Tampines in 2008.