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 By Gabriel Tan

Singapore football must show patience with coach Sundram for 2017

It was a year that promised so much for Singapore football, but 2016 ultimately ended as the latest, disappointing chapter of a dreary saga.

In the first season since the expulsion of LionsXII from the Malaysia Super League, there was hope that the influx of quality, local players would revive the flagging S.League.

A change in national team coach also saw V. Sundramoorthy installed at the helm of the Lions. But after enduring a tough start to life in the big time, he oversaw a group-stage exit at the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup.

Overall, there was little to smile about for Singapore football, so here are five wishes for a brighter 2017:

1. New leadership

Whatever the outcome, history will be made early in 2017 when the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) unveils elected leaders for the first time.

Following a prolonged process, which even resulted in the calling of an Extraordinary General Meeting (EOGM) in November, the move to amend the current constitution was finally confirmed. It paved the way for the democratic election of its next generation of leadership.

It could still take a few more months, given that the absolute deadline for the election is in May. And, it remains uncertain as to who the contenders are, as well as how many there will be.

Whatever the case, it is, at the very least, a positive that potential candidates will be allowed to present their case to the the 46 affiliates of the FAS.

If anything, it will at least promote debate, and raise legitimate questions over the current state of matters, which has resulted in Singapore football's stagnation.

If someone comes in with big, and bold ideas, and is able to gain support, he deserves a shot at reinvigorating the scene.

And even if someone who is currently in the FAS executive committee gets the job, at least there will be several pressing issues that would have been brought to his attention from day one.

Tampines winger Jermaine Pennant
Jermaine Pennant failed to shine in his first season with S.League giants Tampines Rovers.

2. Not big-name players, just very good ones

Jermaine Pennant arrived with plenty of fanfare in January, and left in November, with barely a whimper.

The one-time Arsenal and Liverpool star showed glimpses of quality, but few would argue that he gave a full return of investment. His final outing for Tampines Rovers on Oct. 30 saw him come off the bench to little effect in their Singapore Cup final loss to Albirex Niigata (S).

His initial arrival may have resulted in a boost in crowd figures. But it did not last, proving that a famous name from European football can only get you so far.

As for the ones who truly thrilled the fans? Danish striker Ken Ilso, who has since parted ways with Home United, scored 30 goals in 41 league games. And Atsushi Kawata did enough to earn a move back to Albirex's parent club in the J.League.

Both arrived in Singapore without the same credentials as Pennant, although Ilso did previously play in the German Bundesliga, But the pair proved that actual ability, and performances, matter more than reputation.

It is a shame that Ilso and Kawata have moved on to greener pastures. But this only paves the way for the next wave of foreign stars to light up the S.League, provided the clubs get it right.

3. A spirited performance on the ASEAN stage

The Southeast Asian (SEA) Games will come around once more in August. And, to be perfectly honest, it is extremely unlikely that 2017 will be the year Singapore ends its search for a maiden gold medal in Kuala Lumpur.

At the moment, the current Under-22 side is -- on paper -- far weaker than many of their regional counterparts, especially Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar.

They have had the benefit of playing together on a regular basis in the S.League as the Garena Young Lions, barring a handful of overage players. But in the 2016 season, they finished bottom after suffering 19 losses in 24 outings.

All is not lost, however, as there were several bright lights to emerge in the past year. Forward Hami Syahim, right-back Rusyaidi Salime and midfielder Joshua Pereira all showed glimpses that they could be stars of the future.

Winning a medal at next year's SEA Games could still be a tough ask for Richard Tardy's charges. But what is more important is for them to at least display genuine hunger and endeavour to fight for the flag on their chest, unlike the way they bowed out on home soil two years ago.

Should they give 100 percent, even the most demanding of fans would find it difficult to fault them, even if they fail to achieve a podium finish.

Singapore coach V. Sundramoorthy
V. Sundramoorthy needs to be given more time to get success with the Singapore national team.

4. Patience with Sundram

When Sundram was unveiled as the successor to former Lions coach Bernd Stange in May on a caretaker basis, many welcomed the appointment. But it did not take long for the cynics to emerge.

Prior to the start of the AFF Suzuki Cup in November, the 51-year-old oversaw just two wins in eight competitive games. He was soon being criticised for what some perceived as an overly defensive approach.

Then, the Lions were swiftly eliminated from the Suzuki Cup in the group stage. They scored just one goal, and claimed only one point in matches against Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia.

In no time, even more detractors appeared. But it should be remembered that when Sundram led LionsXII to the MSL crown in 2013, using a similar conservative approach, he was praised for being tactically astute and sensible.

Singapore's record at the Suzuki Cup may not make for pleasant reading, but on closer inspection, did they really fare as badly as some suggest?

Having gone down to 10 men just after half an hour against Group A hosts Philippines, the Lions had no choice but to defend and toiled manfully for a 0-0 draw on Nov. 19.

In their next match against defending champions, and overwhelming favourites, Thailand, they had more scoring chances before ultimately succumbing to an 89th-minute strike to lose 1-0 on Nov. 22.

Perhaps the only game in which they disappointed was then they took the lead against Indonesia in Manila on Nov 26. They ultimately fell to a 2-1 loss to the 2016 finalists, which was enough to seal their exit.

It is widely accepted that the current crop of Lions is nowhere near as strong as previous generations, so should that not come with tempered expectations?

Even after Stange failed to qualify for the semifinals of the Suzuki Cup in 2014, he was still handed a contract extension.

Likewise, Sundram should also be given a prolonged spell to prove his worth, especially with the next round of 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers on the horizon.

5. The Class of 1992 to fulfil their potential

At last year's SEA Games, there were high hopes that the Class of 1992, a talented group of youngsters all born in that year, would come through and form the backbone of the national team for the next decade.

Five of them were called up for the recent Suzuki Cup. But only defender Shakir Hamzah featured prominently, while Faris Ramli showed glimpses of his talent without fully shining.

There is no denying that, on paper, that batch is brimming with talent in the likes of Sahil Suhaimi, Shahfiq Ghani and Al-Qaasimy Rahman to name but a few.

Apart from Shakir, Faris and goalkeeper Syazwan Buhari, not many of them can say they have realised their full potential.

The good news is that time is still on the side, and 2017 presents yet another opportunity for them to shine as they celebrate their 25th birthdays.

Shahfiq has had to endure a wretched run of injuries, while Sahil has been unable to string together a consistent run of performances.

Here's hoping they will be able take the next step in the next 12 months to give Singapore football fans something to smile about.

Gabriel Tan is a TV and radio pundit who writes for ESPN FC and The New Paper on Southeast Asian football. Twitter: @gabetan13.

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