The huge smile on the face of Lion City Sailors Head Coach Aleksandar Ranković when the final whistle blew at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Saturday (9 December) night said it all.

This was, after all, the perfect way for his team to end what had been a long and gruelling season – with a win, a trophy, and a new entry in the Sailors’ history book as the 2023 Singapore Cup winners.

Up against defending champions Hougang United in the final, Ranko’s men produced a professional and clinical display to secure a 3-1 win to clinch their first-ever Singapore Cup.

And for Ranko, this was the perfect way for the Sailors to bring their domestic season to a close.

“I’m proud of these boys and what they did this year. I know it’s not been easy for them, especially with the change of coach in the middle of the season, and having to play in three competitions,” Ranko said.

“But credit to them, they’ve worked hard and I’m very proud of what they’ve achieved today. This Singapore Cup is the cherry on top of our season, and it’s a great way to finish the year.”

Reflecting on the cup win, Sailors captain Hariss Harun said: “It’s fantastic for us, for the club, and I think we deserve to lift this cup. Throughout the tournament, we’ve showed great consistency…we were always determined to get the right results, and that’s what matters most.”

There was more than one record that was broken on the night, as Nathan Mao became the youngest-ever player, at 15 years and 258 days old, to feature in a Singapore Cup final.

Despite his youth, and the magnitude of the occasion, Ranko chose to keep faith in him as the Serb named an unchanged side from the one that beat Tampines 3-0 in the second-leg of the Cup semis on Wednesday (6 Dec).

And it seemed to pay off, as the Sailors started the brighter against an Hougang side that were content to sit deep and keep things tight at the back.

It took 17 minutes for the Sailors to fashion their first goalscoring opportunity as Maxime Lestienne beat his defender in the box and fired a fierce shot with his weaker right foot that forced Hougang goalkeeper Zaiful Nizam into a smart save.

But the Sailors did not have to wait long for the breakthrough. Four minutes later, they were awarded a penalty after Hougang defender Naoki Kuriyama was adjudged to have handled the ball in the box.

Despite a lengthy VAR review which took approximately five minutes, Richairo Živković kept his concentration and confidently dispatched the spot-kick into the bottom corner.

The goal seemed to spur Hougang, and they began pushing forward in search of the equaliser.

While the Sailors no longer enjoyed as much of the possession, they looked threatening whenever they went forward, and in the 41st minute, they got the all-important second goal, albeit in slightly fortuitous circumstances.

Receiving the ball on the right in the box, Maxime – the newly-crowned AIA Player of the Year – cut inside onto his favoured left foot before firing a shot that took a huge deflection off Kuriyama and ended in the back of the net.

Lionel Tan almost made it three for the Sailors against his former side right before half-time when he jumped highest to meet Chris van Huizen’s cross, but his looping header went just over the bar.

With a comfortable two-goal lead, control was the name of the game for the Sailors after the break, and they executed that perfectly, keeping Hougang comfortably at bay for the majority of the second-half.

Barring a few half-chances, Marko Kraljević’s side did not trouble Izwan Mahbud in the Sailors goal.

All hopes of an Hougang comeback were put to rest in the 80th minute when Maxime threaded a superb through ball for substitute Shawal Anuar, who rounded Zaiful before finishing with aplomb.

That was the 32-year-old’s sixth goal in the Singapore Cup this campaign and incredibly all six were scored off the bench, as he finished as the tournament’s joint-top scorer along with Richi.

Hougang did manage to get on the scoresheet in the 91st minute through a Kazuma Takayama header, but it proved to be no more than a consolation as the Sailors held on to secure the victory.

“If you look at the whole match, I think we deserved the win,” Ranko mused. “We started a little bit nervous, which is normal because it’s a huge game. We also used a lot of energy in the semis, and that might have been a factor, but I think throughout the whole game we didn’t give Hougang many chances.

“This win is for everybody at the club, the staff, our owners, and our fans. Everyone has contributed, and they deserve this trophy.”

More importantly, Ranko believes that winning the Singapore Cup will be the launchpad for the Sailors to achieve greater things next season.

He said: “Winning the Singapore Premier League (SPL) is our main goal next season. Apart from winning this cup, we finished second in the SPL, and I think we represented Singapore well in the Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL).

“So, this is a good foundation that we can build on for next season, and we have a good group of players. Everybody will want to prove themselves against us next year, and that’s a challenge we have to deal with.”