He stood, eyes transfixed on the flurry of activity in front of him. It was Thursday, 23 February and the Lion City Sailors were just 24 hours away from their 2023 Singapore Premier League (SPL) season opener against Tanjong Pagar United at the Bishan Stadium.
Head Coach Risto Vidaković watched as his charges went through the paces at the Lion City Sailors Training Centre, but his almost stoic stillness was starkly contrasted with the palpable excitement at Mattar Road.
With the team gradually adapting to his philosophy of possession-based attacking football and showing promising signs in friendly matches since he took charge in early January, the 54-year-old Serbian is optimistic that his Sailors will put up a good show to set the tone for the season ahead.
“The team is growing each time we come together and there’s a lot of positivity amongst the boys – it’s like a family and everyone is enjoying their time with one another. We’re aware the true test comes when the season gets underway, but I’ve seen enough from them that I know they’re going to fight for everything on the pitch to get our first three points of the year,” he said, with conviction.
With Tanjong Pagar retaining the bulk of a squad that punched above their weight to finish sixth last season, Risto acknowledged this could be a tricky opening match, but backed his players to show grit and gumption to come through.
“I think everyone here knows that, especially those who were at the club for the past few seasons – every team is going to play very hard against us and give more than 100 percent because they’re motivated to beat us. I believe our players are experienced enough to know what to do and how to cope with this,” said Risto.
He is acutely aware of the importance of getting his reign off to a good start, but he has his eyes fixed on the long game for the big prize: the league title.
“The first game is always important – not just because of the three points, but also it gives you confidence for future games and the season. But the league is a long-term journey – you cannot win the league after a few games for sure.
“We need to turn it on throughout the year and keep at what we’ve been building on – to play an attractive style of football. And we have to carefully manage individual players’ condition so that we’re well prepared for all three rounds,” said the former Ceres-Negros tactician.
In Hariss Harun, Risto has an ideal leader with the ability to take command of a dressing room which is now brimming with young talent, and the experience to pull through difficult periods that every team will inevitably encounter.
The skipper is at the heart of the Risto revolution and is keen to lead the Sailors Class of 2023 into a new era for the club.
“Obviously this pre-season is starkly different from the past few, because of the new players and a new coach. Amongst the new players, there are several with plenty of potential and I’m excited to see how they improve and help the club in the next few years. This is a great opportunity for them to write a new story with this club.
“Along with players like Hafiz (Nor), Maxime (Lestienne) and Diego (Lopes), there are experienced heads in the dressing room to help me manage these boys and I’m truly excited to be in a position to help them grow here,” said the 32-year-old.
Despite the changes, Hariss acknowledged the fact Sailors are still expected to be amongst the frontrunners for the title and are relishing the opportunity to ‘right the wrongs’ of last season.
“It is at the lowest when you learn the most. The way we ended last season was poor and the fans deserve to see a better showing from the team for this year – they deserved so much more for the support that they have given us.
“It will be a tougher fight for the title this season, but it is a challenge that keeps us on our toes and will spur us on. Together our team will continue to strive and show the way forward in Singapore football on and off the pitch because that is what we stand for,” said the Singapore national team captain.
For now, Hariss just cannot wait to get onto the Bishan pitch to usher in the new season.
“We’re delighted to be back at our rightful home in Bishan. We just cannot wait to play some entertaining football and get the three points for our fans on Friday night,” he said.