A packed Lion City Sailors’ August fixture list has been lightened, after the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) announced a rescheduling of the Singapore Premier League (SPL) match against fellow title challengers Tampines Rovers that was originally to be played on 4 August.
The away fixture at Our Tampines Hub will now take place on Tuesday, 21 September at the same venue.
In its announcement, the FAS said the postponement was to provide Tampines adequate time to prepare after serving a quarantine after the team returned from their Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) group stage exploits in Uzbekistan between 25 June and 10 July.
Instead of facing Tampines twice in the next month, the Sailors will now battle the Stags on Sunday, 15 Aug before the rescheduled match some five weeks later on 21 Sept.
The Sailors played out an enthralling 3-3 draw with Tampines in the club’s season opening fixture in March.
The Sailors’ August schedule will now see four SPL fixtures instead of five, starting with next Sunday, 8 Aug, against Balestier Khalsa at the Toa Payoh Stadium, with Tanjong Pagar United (20 Aug) and Hougang United (27 Aug) following after the Tampines fixture.
It has been four years since Hariss Harun played in the Singapore Premier League (SPL) – then known as the S.League – but on Friday evening (23 July) at the Jurong East Stadium, the 30-year-old marked his return, helping Lion City Sailors to a 1-1 draw against defending champions Albirex Niigata (S).
But while Hariss was proud to make his Sailors debut – he officially linked up with the team in June – he admitted that his performance against Albirex left much to be desired.
“It was great to make my debut for the Sailors at last, after waiting for so long. Playing in Singapore again was good but I have to adjust to playing in artificial pitches again week in week out as in Malaysia, games were played mostly on grass pitches,” said Hariss, who had spent nearly eight years across the causeway with Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT).
“My performance against Albirex was definitely not my best, and I wasn’t happy with it. That said, I am determined to improve to try and help the team more.”
The Sailors struggled to contain Albirex in the first-half, and went a goal down on the stroke of half-time through a Ryoya Taniguchi penalty.
But the introduction of playmaker Diego Lopes at the break saw the Sailors gain a foothold in the game. And in the 72nd minute, the Brazilian played a key pass in the final third to set fellow substitute Hafiz Nor free on the left flank. Hafiz then squared the ball for Stipe Plazibat to equalise from close range.
Hariss pointed to Diego’s introduction as the turning point in the game, explaining: “In the first half, we tried to rattle them (Albirex), but they adjusted after a while and we struggled a bit.
“But we were more positive in the second half, and tried to play the ball more on the ground rather than going direct. After all, with Diego coming on, it’s only normal for us to play into his feet more often because that’s what he is good at, and he certainly gave us more quality in attack.
“Overall, considering how the match went, a draw was probably a fair result.”
The Sailors, however, would have likely come away from the Jurong East Stadium empty-handed, if not for the heroics of captain Hassan Sunny in goal.
The 37-year-old shot-stopper pulled off a string of stunning saves to keep the Sailors in the game, and Hariss credits Hassan for inspiring the team with his man-of-the-match display.
“Hassan was amazing, he kept us in the game. It would have been a different story without his saves, some of which were jaw dropping,” gushed Hariss. “He is our captain, and seeing him pull off those saves gave us confidence…there is no doubt he was the best player on the pitch (on Friday night).”
The draw leaves the Sailors second in the table, just one point behind current league leaders Albirex. With the Japanese side still needing to play the Sailors at the Jalan Besar Stadium in September, Hariss is confident that his new team will be able to end the season as SPL champions.
“We went into this game wanting to seize the initiative and win. It didn’t happen, but to remain close and within a point of Albirex is important,” he said.
“Our target remains winning the SPL title, but there’s still much work to be done. Every match matters, and every point counts. We have to focus on one game at a time.
“The good thing is, the team is getting better under Coach Kim (Do-hoon), so we must continue to improve to take our game up another level or two, and hopefully, we will finish top at the end of the season.”
Lion City Sailors will have to wait until next season to make their debut in Asian Football Confederation (AFC) competitions.
This comes after confirmation from the AFC earlier today (7 July 2021) that all matches of the AFC Cup 2021 ASEAN Zone have been cancelled due to the challenges imposed by the global pandemic in finding a suitable host to stage the centralised matches.
The ASEAN Zone comprises Groups G, H and I as well as the Playoff Stage that would have followed. The Sailors were drawn in Group H alongside Kedah Darul Aman FC of Malaysia, Indonesia’s Persipura Jayapura and the Vietnamese side, Saigon FC.
Geylang International was slated to be Singapore’s other representative in the competition, in Group I.
“We were looking forward to competing against regional clubs, and all of us are disappointed that our portion of the AFC Cup competition has been cancelled,” said Sailors Chief Executive, Chew Chun-Liang.
“But we are acutely aware of the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Sailors remain supportive of measures that help keep football fans, players and staff, across the region safe.”
New Sailors Head Coach Kim Do-hoon will now shift his focus to the Singapore Premier League (SPL). The Korean will have to drive his charges to finish among the top three local clubs in the SPL to earn the right to compete in the region next season.
Said Chew: “We will continue to work hard to achieve success locally to ensure we qualify for AFC competitions next season and work towards our vision of competing and doing well in the region.”
The Sailors are currently second in the eight-team SPL standings, one point behind Albirex Niigata (S). Kim’s men will take on Albirex on 23 July in a top of the table clash that marks his first game at the helm.
After leading South Korea’s Ulsan Hyundai to Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League (ACL) success last December, Kim Do-hoon had plans for a year’s sojourn to rest his mind and recharge his batteries.
Coming off a wildly successful four-year spell with the K League 1 side that saw him lead the club to their first-ever Korean FA Cup win and back-to-back runner-up finishes in the league, there was naturally no shortage of suitors for the 50-year-old who was set on taking some time out of the game.
He received lucrative offers from the Chinese Super League (CSL) and Japan’s J-League, but ultimately it was a meeting with Lion City Sailors chairman Forrest Li that convinced Kim to change his mind.
He had never managed outside of his home country, but Kim was won over by Li’s vision and commitment to revolutionise Singapore football and equip the Sailors to challenge the best in Asia. It was Li’s ambitious Sailors project that intrigued Kim, a new challenge that ultimately saw him cut short his planned sabbatical.
“I could tell from my conversation with Forrest that he’s a football man – he really understands the game and is heavily invested in the club. He not only wants the club to become the best team in the country, but also has the vision for us to be a proud representative for Singapore on the regional stage,” said Kim through a translator.
“Because of that, we always try to get the best players, coaches and backroom staff. And it’s this kind of environment that I really like, and I feel that Forrest’s vision is really in line with mine – a firm commitment to excellence and serious ambition to achieve targets.
“That’s why I really wanted to be a part of the Sailors.”
Talks between the club and Kim progressed swiftly with terms agreed on a two-and-a-half year contract that would last till the end of the 2023 season, as the South Korean was officially confirmed as the Sailors’ new head coach in mid-May.
Kim had been in Singapore a couple of times prior to this appointment, including once as an AFC coaching instructor in 2013. In his short stays here he was left impressed by the security and cosmopolitan culture of the country.
While Singapore may not be an established Asian powerhouse like Korea or Japan, ambitious plans have been laid out to improve the standard of the game here and to eventually take it to the world stage– through the nation’s much talked-about Unleash The Roar! project.
This is where Kim sees himself fitting in perfectly, as part of a larger plan to improve football. Since he started his coaching career with the South Korean Under-20s in 2014, Kim has thrived on bringing through promising young players and improving the style and results of teams he managed.
When he was at Incheon United, he led the club to a historic runners-up finish in the 2015 FA Cup – still their best-ever achievement in the tournament – where they only lost out to the more fancied FC Seoul, falling to two late goals.
At Ulsan, where the club’s only honour in the 11 years prior to his arrival in 2017 was the 2012 ACL triumph, he masterminded two trophies in four years and went closer to challenging Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors for the league title. The Tigers only narrowly missed out in 2019 due to an inferior goal difference.
“I know there are big aspirations to improve the footballing scene here and to close the gap with other countries,” he said. “Hopefully with my experience, I can be part of the change in Singapore – maybe to improve professionalism and football quality as a whole.”
Having completed a 14-day quarantine after arriving in Singapore from his native Gyeongnam, Kim has wasted little time in getting down to work as he oversaw his first training session with the Sailors on Tuesday (29 June) evening.
Under his tutelage, Ulsan evolved into a team that not only played an eye-catching brand of attacking football, but was also known for their strong defence. Kim has laid out the same philosophy for his new charges.
While still in the midst of getting to know the players better, he has already observed enough from their matches this season to know that they have the potential to meet his high demands.
A prolific striker who represented the South Korean national team on more than 70 occasions, including at the 1998 FIFA World Cup, Kim certainly knows a good player when he sees one.
“Obviously there is the stigma of the SPL not being comparable to the big leagues in Asia, but I can see for myself, we’re not as low as everyone thinks,” he emphasised. “I like what I’m seeing from these players and I’m here to help them reach their potential. I’m sure we can achieve things together once everyone is accustomed to what I want from them.
“Essentially I want the team to play a dynamic style of attacking football so that the fans that come to watch us can enjoy the game. I want to focus on the team cohesion – we must be a hardworking team that fights for the ball all the time, we have to control the game as a whole while being compact at the back.”
Kim believes the Sailors have the capacity for success, and is here to help to “accelerate the process” of the Sailors being competitive in the region.
“There is still a lot of room for improvement. But if we work together as a team and put in the effort, we can become a force in Asia in due time,” he proclaimed. “There are no shortcuts to success, but I’m here to help us achieve our goals in a faster manner.”
The short-term target: to lead the Sailors to their first-ever Singapore Premier League (SPL) title since their 2020 inception.
Kim will be looking to help the Sailors continue their excellent form before the international break, achieving a club-record six-game winning streak that has seen them go to 26 points, just one off the summit.
His first official game in charge of the Sailors will be a bumper top-of-the-table clash against league leaders and reigning champions Albirex Niigata (S) on 23 July.
And Kim cannot wait to get started.
“Obviously the target is to win the league title this season. That will help us qualify for the ACL next year and challenge ourselves,” he said.
“We have to focus on this objective now before having bigger dreams and goals for next season and beyond.”