“If you’re good enough, you’re old enough”.
That famous quote attributed to Sir Matt Busby is an often used message to players that anyone can make a mark on the team, as long as they put their heart into everything they do on and off the pitch.
The Lion City Sailors Women Class of 2023 is a living breathing example of that.
The Deloitte Women’s Premier League (WPL) champions, led by Head Coach Yeong Sheau Shyan, promoted seven academy players to the first team as the side showcased their dominance, going unbeaten throughout the 2023 season.
Three of them – Ardhra Arul Ganeswaran, Chloe Koh and Seri Ayu Natasha Naszri, all 16 – have shone, receiving scholarships from the national project Unleash The Roar! (UTR) and moved on to overseas opportunities, while the rest – Josephine Ang, 17, Cara Chang, 15, Tia Foong, 16 and Madelin Lock, 16 – have contributed significantly to the team, especially towards the tail end of the campaign.
Additionally, Josephine and Cara recently made their debuts for the national team, donning red for the first time in an international friendly against Bangladesh on 1 December.
Sheau Shyan revealed that promoting academy players has always been part of her plan to refresh the squad each year, but what she did not see coming was the number of such players featuring this season.
“When we started the women’s team, what’s already in our plans was that in years to come, when the academy players graduate, they’ll form the core of our WPL team,” said the league’s Coach of the Year.
“There’s also a general trend in women’s football that players are getting younger and eligible to play in the WPL. But I didn’t expect this to happen so quickly, largely due to our circumstances this year, including our injuries and foreign players leaving.”
And these seven were not there to make up numbers, they made real and significant contributions to the team cause.
“I’m very surprised. Initially I thought of letting them come in and develop themselves, but instead they showed me that they’ve been ready all along,” said Sheau Shyan.
One of the seven, Ardhra, is now finding her feet at the IMG Academy in the United States, and she still recalls the moment she made her WPL debut in a 1-0 win against rivals Tampines Rovers on 21 May.
“When I got called up to train with the WPL squad at the end of last year, I did not see it coming at all because I thought we were done for the year,” the lively winger said, during a phone call from Florida.
“It felt amazing because I was one of the first few from the academy, alongside Natasha, to make my debut for the team and to do it against not just any normal team, but Tampines, was a great experience overall.”
Her time in the WPL squad played a role in helping her obtain the UTR scholarship, she said.
“It’s given me the opportunity to play at a higher level and more regularly. To train with such high quality players, most of whom have also represented the national team, gave me a lot more exposure and experience,” Ardhra noted.
“I think I’ve grown tremendously as a player this season. At the start, I was terrified whenever I got the ball, I just didn’t feel comfortable with it but towards the end of my time at the Sailors, I could feel myself wanting the ball more and making more of an impact.”
Another player who has improved leaps and bounds since joining the WPL side is Josephine, who made her debut in a 3-0 victory over Still Aerion.
She admitted that the step up to the league was a daunting one, and to make matters worse, she was substituted 45 minutes into the match.
“I felt I had a lot of responsibility to carry, everything was on my shoulders and I was nervous. Even though coach Sheau Shyan told me I played well that day, I kept thinking I played badly,” the forward recalled.
She also opened up on the challenges she faced mentally as she attempted to acclimatise to different surroundings. Everything worked out for her eventually as she finished joint-third highest goal-scorer in the team with seven.
“At first, I struggled to keep up with the intensity and pace of play, and I kept overthinking and I had a negative mindset. But once I felt more settled, I became more positive and just wanted to play football. Everything seemed fun again,” said Josephine.
“This experience has definitely helped me grow as a player because now, I know what I want to do on the field and my role in the team. I want to set a very high standard for myself and keep improving every day.”
Just like Josephine, having a strong mentality was a key factor behind Madelin’s successful season.
The dynamic midfielder was struck by an injury in a match on 5 August that kept her out for the rest of the month. She eventually returned on 15 October and finished the season on a strong note, starting all of the remaining matches.
“I was training quite consistently with the team before that injury and coach Sheau Shyan told me it was my time to step up then. I had to sit out all four matches that month and I was disappointed about that,” she said.
Despite the setback, Madelin’s love for the sport is evident. Although the multi-talented athlete has to juggle not only her studies but also basketball training – she was part of the National Under-16 setup – football still has a special place in her heart.
“It’s quite a big commitment to be part of the WPL team, especially as we train four times a week. It’s hard for me to go to both football and basketball training sessions as it causes a lot of strain on my body,” she shared.
“It was very hard for me to commit to training with the Sailors, but it’s just about how much I wanted to do it. If I didn’t like this team, I wouldn’t sacrifice so much of my time for it.
“But this team has given me so much, I’ve grown so much and it’s always a pleasure to train and play with them. So I’ll always make sure I have time for training by setting aside time to do my school work.”
Besides pulling the strings from the middle of the park, Madelin has also added goals to her game in recent weeks. She finished the season on seven goals, including a hat-trick in the final game, this despite only scoring her first on 22 October.
“For some of the matches earlier this season, I played a more defensive role and didn’t want to take risks going forward. But once I started gaining goal-scoring momentum, it felt great to keep banging them in,” said Madelin.
Cara is another who has inspired on the goal-scoring front. The youngest debutant in the team this season has netted five times, while mesmerising fans – and opponents – with her tricky footwork.
She revealed that things were not exactly rosy in the early days of her WPL experience.
“At the start, I’d be worried for every training session because I wasn’t the best and couldn’t really keep up,” said the 15-year-old.
“I also thought that this would just be a new opportunity for me, but to score five goals, I feel like whatever I did was an accomplishment.”
Being the youngest in the team, nervousness would be a factor for Cara, but she chooses to look at it positively instead.
“On one hand, people may ask ‘who let this kid in?’ if I don’t perform well, but at the same time I look at it as the chance to learn and to take every opportunity as it comes,” she noted.
“Hopefully in a few years time, I get to try playing different positions and continue being at a high level.”
The contrast between playing in the academy and the WPL is stark, as all players agreed that the senior team is on a completely different level.
Madelin pointed to the physicality of players in the WPL as one of the biggest changes.
“The players here are much more physical than any I’ve ever faced. They are much stronger, and in the beginning, there were times where I did not go for challenges as I was scared I would be bumped off the ball,” she said.
Ardhra added: “At the academy level, no one really expects anything from you. In the WPL there’s more at stake, you’re expected to win every match especially at the Sailors, so I’d say composure is the biggest difference.”
Although the players have faced their own challenges since being promoted, one thing that stayed constant was the support they received from Sheau Shyan and their teammates.
“My teammates give me a lot of assurance and encourage me. They tell me to be open-minded and even just their words give me a boost,” said Josephine.
Added Cara: “We have a really great team atmosphere and I could feel comfortable with the team. The players were very welcoming from the start and always guided me.”
Sheau Shyan shared that the impact made by the seven players in any way cannot be underestimated as they have punched above their weights and showed what they were capable of.
“These players are technically stronger than some of our existing players, because they’ve started playing the sport from a much younger age,” she said.
“Their technical abilities and skills help us to play a more possession-based style of football, and also score more goals.
“And I’m certain they will only get better from here.”