It was a thrilling debut season for the Lion City Sailors. Aurelio Vidmar’s men plundered 44 goals in 14 matches and played attractive attacking football en route to a third-placed finish in the Singapore Premier League (SPL) – securing AFC Cup qualification in the process.

It is now time to look back on the defining moments of the Sailors’ campaign and reflect on what has been a gruelling season for the team, while also looking ahead to the following year.

Low point

Let’s get the negatives out of the way first – there is no doubt what the lowest point of the Sailors’ season was. After starting the campaign with a disappointing 1-1 draw against the Tanjong Pagar United, the Sailors faced a difficult task in their very next match, facing title rivals Tampines Rovers at Our Tampines Hub (OTH). The Sailors acquitted themselves well and were arguably the better side in the first half-hour, albeit without being able to put their chances away. The team, however, failed to replicate their intensity and sharpness in the second half. The Stags duly capitalised, and eventually ran out 4-0 winners.

The margin of the defeat, along with the winless start to the season, saw the Sailors come in for much criticism on social media, and pressure began mounting on Aurelio and the Sailors despite it still being early days. But that is the territory that comes along with being Singapore’s first-ever privatised football club – the expectations are higher, and any shortfall is deemed unacceptable.

High point

The seven-month enforced hiatus to the season due to Covid-19 gave the Sailors an opportunity to better adjust to Aurelio’s philosophy, and allowed them to iron out the kinks from the first two games. And the team subsequently returned stronger for the league’s restart in mid-October. Indeed, the Sailors would put together a run of three successive wins over 10 days in November – scoring a staggering 16 goals in just over 270 minutes – to reduce the gap between them and the top of the table to just three points, with five games to go.

What was pleasing, however, was that Aurelio’s men played some scintillating football in those three matches – blitzing Balestier Khalsa and Tanjong Pagar United 7-1 and 6-1 respectively, before coming through a difficult away game against Hougang United to win 3-1. The team’s progress was clearly evident, and many began to view the Sailors as serious contenders for the title.

Performance of the season

Without a doubt, the 7-1 thrashing of Balestier. Many expected this fixture to be a tough one for the Sailors – after all, they were coming into the game off a frustrating 1-1 home draw with Hougang, while the Tigers were flying high after recording victories in their first two games after the restart.

But the Sailors tore up the script and showed just what they were made of in this match. Known for being slow starters prior to this game, the Sailors showed urgency and intent from the get-go as they went 5-0 up in the span of 34 minutes through some superb team play that came right off the training ground. 

Stipe Plazibat ran the show for the Sailors scoring a fantastic hat-trick, while also laying on two clever assists for Song Ui-Young and Saifullah Akbar. The Tigers simply did not know what hit them as the Aurelio and his charges took the largest half-time lead since the league was rebranded as the SPL in 2018.

The Sailors did not rest on their laurels, with Tajeli Salamat and Adam Swandi adding further goals in the second half to add gloss to the scoreline. It was a performance and result that went a long way in convincing many that the Sailors are indeed the real deal.

Most improved player

A number of players have improved under the tutelage of coach Aurelio, but the standout has got to be experienced right-back Aqhari Abdullah. Though he was not selected for the Sailors’ first two outings in March, the 29-year-old worked hard to reclaim his spot in the starting eleven after the league restart, and has since proven himself to be a modern full-back.

Previously known simply for his defensive attributes, Aqhari has this season developed an attacking edge to his game, with the full-back constantly pushing up to support the attack and whipping in dangerous crosses for his forwards. His determination and willingness to re-invent his play at this stage of his career is something that will surely inspire younger players.

Best goals

Song Ui-Young vs Tanjong Pagar United (13 Nov)

It was a goal that encapsulated the seemingly telepathic understanding between the Sailors’ attackers this season. Receiving the ball from Stipe, Song instantly laid the ball back into the Croatian striker’s path, and made a darting run into the area in expectation of a through pass. Stipe duly obliged and returned the ball to him with precision, and Song coolly finished off the move past Tanjong Pagar keeper Kenji Rusydi to put the Sailors three goals up in their eventual 6-1 win.

Gabriel Quak vs Geylang International (25 Nov)

The newly-crowned SPL Player of the Year, Gabriel, has been unplayable at times this campaign. And the 29-year-old stole the show in the Sailors’ 3-0 win over Geylang at OTH with a brilliant individual effort late in the game. It looked like Gabriel still had plenty of work to do when Hafiz Nor played the ball into his path just outside the six-yard box, but the Singapore international took out Yuki Ichiakawa with a cheeky backheel turn, proceeded to leave Adam Hakeem on his backside with another silky touch, before firing past Hairul Syirhan with a toe-poke. A classy goal from a classy player.

Saifullah Akbar vs Balestier Khalsa (5 Dec)

Keeping the ball with purpose before upping the tempo at the right time and attacking the opponent with lightning speed – that has been the Sailors’ way in 2020. 

Saifullah’s goal against Balestier in the final game of the season perfectly illustrated this philosophy. When Tajeli headed the ball away in defence, his teammates quickly moved into open spaces to receive the ball. Hafiz Nor picked up the loose ball and played it back to Faizal Roslan, who passed it forward to Izzdin Shafiq. The Sailors captain then laid it on to Shahril Ishak, who instinctively played a through ball down the right for Hafiz. The nippy winger sprinted to the by-line before whipping in a pinpoint cross for Saifullah to thump home a stunning first-time volley past a rooted Zaiful Nizam in the Balestier goal.

Coach overview

With years of experience coaching abroad, and having famously led Adelaide United to the AFC Champions League final in 2008, there were massive expectations heaped on Aurelio Vidmar when he joined the Sailors. As with any new coach, it took some time for Aurelio to implement his ideas and get players to align themselves with his philosophy – and the team did struggle in the beginning.

However, the 53-year-old’s possession-based philosophy soon began to rub off on the players, and they became more and more efficient in playing the Aurelio way. He not only helped to bring young talents like Naqiuddin Eunos, Arshad Shamim and Saifullah to another level, but also managed to re-invent the experienced stars in the squad such as the aforementioned Aqhari and Gabriel – who impressed in a false nine role. The fact that the team averaged more than three goals a game this season is a testament to his coaching methods.

A number of players have also praised the personal touch of Aurelio, who makes it a point to give advice to every individual in the squad, while also listening and taking on board what they have to share. The Sailors are in good hands with him at the helm.

Ones to watch out for next season

Saifullah Akbar

It was a promising first season for one of the most talented young playmakers in the country. Often deployed in a midfield three along with Shahdan Sulaiman and Song, Saifullah is beginning to develop into a modern attacking midfielder who can both create and score goals.

With two goals and one assist this year, the onus is on the 21-year-old to raise his game to yet another level. We hope to see him influence the game and drive the team on even more next year, while also recording more goal involvements!

Stipe Plazibat

We do not need to say much about the impact Stipe has made on this team since his arrival in the mid-season transfer window. Apart from his goalscoring exploits, his intelligent and unselfish all-round play was a key component in making the Sailors’ attack tick.

It was a pity that a hamstring problem meant the 31-year-old barely played a part in the final few matches of the season. With the striker determined to work past his injury issues for next season, and with proper rest and recuperation, fans will be waiting with bated breath to see how a fully-fit Stipe can influence the team in his first full season with the Sailors.

Sailors’ 2020 team and individual stats (selected)

Top scorers – Stipe Plazibat – 9, Song Ui-Young – 9, Gabriel Quak – 5

Top assisters – Gabriel Quak – 7, Shahdan Sulaiman – 6, Stipe Plazibat – 5.

Total goals – 44 (highest in league, 12 more than nearest challengers Albirex)

Total shots – 208 (third-highest behind Albirex’s 237 and Tampines’s 214)

Total shots on target – 86 (second-highest behind Tampines’ 100)

Goals conceded – 18 (third-lowest behind Tampines’ 11 and Albirex’s 14)

Goal difference – +26 (highest, eight more than nearest challengers Albirex)

Total fouls – 169 (lowest, eight less than nearest challengers Geylang)

Yellow cards – 24 (second-lowest, five more than Albirex’s 19)

Red cards – 0 (one of only two teams along with Albirex with no explusions)

No. of goalscorers – 12 (joint-highest with Albirex)

  •         Stipe Plazibat – 9
  •         Song Ui-young – 9
  •         Gabriel Quak – 5
  •         Adam Swandi – 4
  •         Shahril Ishak – 3
  •         Shahdan Sulaiman – 2
  •         Saifullah Akbar – 2
  •         Arshad Shamim – 2
  •         Kaishu Yamazaki – 2
  •         Tajeli Salamat – 2
  •         Hafiz Nor – 1
  •         Andrew Pengelly – 1