Proud. Fantastic. Amazing.

These were the words that Lion City Sailors head coach Aurelio Vidmar used to describe his players in the aftermath of his team’s 1-1 draw with Tampines Rovers at the Bishan Stadium in the Singapore Premier League (SPL) on Wednesday evening (Dec 2).

The message from Aurelio to his team could not have been clearer. While the draw meant the Sailors could no longer achieve their aim of qualifying for next season’s Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) – they needed to beat the Stags in order to stand a chance of doing so – Aurelio was far from upset with what he had seen from his charges over the course of a gruelling season.

“I’m not disappointed at all. I think we’ve come a long way since the beginning when I first came here,” the Australian reflected. “We all wanted the same thing, to win the SPL, but it didn’t eventuate. Nonetheless, I’m super proud of the players’ performances up to this point.

“It’s a fantastic effort from everyone. It hasn’t been easy because we’ve had a lot of games in a short span of time. But the players did an amazing job to keep themselves fit, fresh and upbeat right through this whole period.”

But it could have been so different for the Sailors had they capitalised on their dominance in the first-half against Tampines. Song Ui-Young and Gabriel Quak came close to scoring for the Sailors, but it was experienced forward Shahril Ishak who eventually broke the deadlock on the cusp of half-time, as he bundled home Arshad Shamim’s cutback at the second time of asking.

The visitors grew into the game in the second half, and eventually found the equaliser in the 62nd minute through Zehrudin Mehmedović.

While the Sailors picked up the pace in the final 10 minutes of the game, they were unable to get the winning goal they needed.

Acknowledging that his team faded after the break, Aurelio said: “I thought we had a very good first-half where we controlled the game. We deserved the lead, and definitely could have had another goal in that first-half.

“In the second-half, we started to lose the ball a bit too much. There are some reasons why we did that – we weren’t able to squeeze the lines between the defenders and the forwards, and the gaps started to appear. but it’s quite understandable, because we came to this point now right at the end after having absolutely worked our socks off, and we just lacked a little bit of legs.”

Having lost 4-0 to Tampines in the reverse fixture at Our Tampines Hub in March before the SPL was suspended, the Sailors showed just how much they had progressed over the course of the season – they more than matched Gavin Lee’s men throughout the 90 minutes.

Aurelio revealed he never had any doubt that his players were better than the defeat to Tampines had suggested, and credited them for working hard to improve to their current level, despite the disruption caused by Covid-19 and a truncated SPL season.

“I was always confident the improvement was going to happen. Yes, we started slowly, because I had somewhat planned it in terms of 27 league games that we want to be playing at a high tempo right through to round 27,” Aurelio explained.

“That’s why we had a slower start, although I knew back then that we would be able to play in this type of way anyway. It just takes time, and we’re now a completely different side to the one we were in March.”

While the Sailors may have been unable to win the title and qualify for the ACL this year, Aurelio made no bones about what he expects from the Sailors next season.

“Next year there’s only one thing on my mind, and it should be on everyone else’s – we have to win it. It’s very simple, very clear,” said Aurelio. “Things just don’t happen quickly in a small space of time. We needed time to build, to get trust and build confidence, and to get people to understand exactly what the requirements are.

“Such things don’t happen overnight. There’s a lot that goes into preparing players and the team as a whole. Everyone at the club has done a remarkable job so far, but next year has to be our year.”

In the immediate future, however, the Sailors will have to turn their attention to the visit of Balestier Khalsa on Saturday (Dec 5), 5.30pm, at the Bishan Stadium.

Though the match is effectively a dead rubber for the Sailors, who will finish third in the table regardless of the result, Aurelio insists his players will give nothing but their 100 per cent for their final fixture of the season.

“There is always something to play for, regardless what it means mathematically. We are not going to be a team that is going to go into a game to lie down and not compete. That’s just never going to happen,” Aurelio declared emphatically.

“It’s our responsibility as professional sportspeople to go and compete. We’re not going to play Balestier thinking it’s a holiday. After Saturday, they’re going to get the nice break they richly deserve. But not until after the game.”