The confetti had long been swept off Jalan Besar Stadium’s plastic green arena, and those 1,000 jubilant fans had already gone to bed and woken up as part of the crew that willed on the first Singapore club to win the Singapore Premier League (SPL) since 2014.
The floodlights at the stadium have yet to be turned on since, but the electricity that sparked the night sky above Jalan Besar for 90 odd minutes on 10 October will crackle on in the hearts of all who were present at the most spectacular of season finales in recent history – the night the Lion City Sailors became SPL champions for the first time.
For those out on the pitch, the memory of the wild 90 mins on 10 Oct has been seared into memory, along with the moment gold and blue confetti floated down from the sky.
“It’s an absolutely unbelievable feeling to finally be an SPL champion,” said Gabriel Quak, who was a key figure in the Sailors’ 4-1 win over Balestier Khalsa that secured the title. Gabriel’s two goals – along with a goal apiece from Song Ui-young and Diego Lopes – fuelled the Sailors’ hard-fought victory on the night.
But the scoreboard belied the roller-coaster of emotions on a night closest rivals Albirex Niigata (S) stormed to a 4-1 half-time lead against Tanjong Pagar United in a concurrent match – and threatened to overcome the goal difference deficit to steal the SPL title.
Albirex were eventually stunned by a Jaguars side that came back from a three-goal half-time deficit to salvage a 4-4 draw, a result that saw the Sailors win the league by a two-point margin.
But the Sailors were forced to navigate stormy waters, with Hariss Harun forced off by injury, playmaker Shahdan Sulaiman deputising at centre-back, and nerve-wracking moments after Balestier found a goal – through Aidil Johari – that levelled the match at 1-1.
“I had only filled in at centre-back once before and that was when I was in Malaysia with Melaka United (in 2018), and I was a bit surprised when Coach Kim asked me to play there, but I knew I had to just step in and try to do a job for the team,” recalled Shahdan.
“We were somehow quite shaken by Hariss’s injury and it looked like there was a lack of ideas from us,” admitted Gabriel, of the 10-minute period when his team looked shaky – as a previously rocking Jalan Besar falling eerily silent – and could well have conceded another goal.
But the Sailors dug deep to find steel and regained the lead just before the break. In what he described as his “most important goal of the season”, Gabriel showed great desire to win an aerial challenge with Balestier goalkeeper Zacharial Leong before hooking into an empty net.
“That goal set the tone for the second half,” added Gabriel, for whom this is a first domestic league title.
Sunday’s 90 minutes was perhaps a distilled reflection of the Sailors’ topsy-turvy season that saw three head coaches – Aurelio Vidmar, Robin Chitrakar (interim) and Kim Do-hoon – a few failed attempts to take control of the title race, injury issues and even a surge of support from Singapore football fans that was accompanied by a momentary dip in confidence.
“To win a title takes a lot of hard work as a team. We went through several ups and downs to finally end the season on top – that makes this triumph taste particularly sweet,” said a philosophical Shahdan.
Shahdan, is one of only three players – along with club captain Hassan Sunny (Warriors, 2014) and Adam Swandi (Albirex, 2018) – who have experienced an SPL triumph. The 33-year-old last won the league with Tampines Rovers in 2013, but the exhilaration, even as a seasoned veteran, remains otherworldly.
“Back then with Tampines, I was still quite young, in a team of experienced players like Aleksandar Duric and Farra (Fahrudin Mustafic),” said Shahdan. “Now I’m one of the leaders in my team who needs to guide the younger ones. That’s perhaps the only difference. The joy of winning a title remains the same – absolutely amazing.”
The expectation of a league victory – and that absolutely amazing feeling – was perhaps what drew fans to Jalan Besar on Sunday.
Queues for match tickets began to form by 12pm, some three hours before sales commenced. With only 1,000 spectators allowed under current COVID-19 regulations, those who could not get tickets even perched themselves atop of the multi-storey car park facing the venue in order to catch a glimpse of the action.
Fans played their part in the win, going beyond just lending their voice to the Sailors, to even chanting “Tanjong Pagar” to signal to the men on the pitch that the Jaguars were doing well against Albirex at the Jurong East Stadium.
And the stands erupted at the final whistle that signaled the club’s historic first SPL title.
As the Sailors held the 15kg, 67.5cm trophy aloft before proceeding to celebrate on the pitch with their loved ones, it was clear that triumph went beyond just football.
For Shahdan, this was the first time he would celebrate an SPL title win with his two sons. His eldest, Shaqeel Ilhan, was just a newborn when Shahdan last lifted the trophy some eight years ago.
“It was such a special feeling to have Shaqeel and my younger son (five-year-old Shaheen) present as we won a trophy – they were just so excited to hold it in their hands,” said the midfielder, who missed only one match throughout the season, through suspension.
Similarly for Gabriel, having his six-year-old daughter Gladys and two-year-old son Garrett present on such a momentous occasion made everything sweeter.
“My daughter is at an age where she can understand many things, so it’s nice for her to witness this – it’s a moment money can’t buy,” said the national team forward, whose 13-goal tally saw him finish as the top local goalscorer for the second consecutive season.
“I’m just glad to be able to score for them. Celebrating with them on the pitch, it felt like all the sacrifices I made for my career paid off.”
While soaking in the historic moment with teammates, family and fans, the Sailors saved something special for the man who made all this possible – club Chairman Forrest Li.
The Sailors chanted “Forrest!” on the pitch as they bounced up and down and shot their hands up into the Jalan Besar sky – with a fervour matching the chants of those in the stands.
“He’s out of town at the moment, but I think if anyone deserved the loudest cheer, it has to be Forrest,” said Gabriel. “We can only do so much, but ultimately the foundation of our success was put in place by his inspired vision and commitment to excellence.
“Massive respect for the trust he has put in the team and the club, he believed in us from Day One. We look forward to having him back in Singapore so we can celebrate together.”
The dust is only just beginning to settle on the historic SPL title, but Sailors’ eyes are already looking to the horizon. The club Chairman’s vision of establishing the club as a regional powerhouse kicks into gear next year, with the Sailors’ first involvement in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League campaign.
“First we have to establish ourselves locally – we have to make sure this title is not a one-off. We have to win the league year in year out,” said Gabriel. “Only then can we talk about the continental stage – and we’re clear that we have to keep working hard if we want to match up with Asia’s best.”