Back Sablon for Lions to roar
Belgian's blueprint for youth development will haul the local game to new heights
Hours before the Lions kicked off their Suzuki Cup campaign against hosts Philippines a little over a week ago in Manila, Michel Sablon presented the national youth football development programme.
Today, with the national players sitting at home wondering at what might have been after their exit in the opening round of South-east Asia's biggest competition, I think back to what Sablon delivered at Jurongville Secondary School at The New Paper-Dollah Kassim Award, and I'm hopeful.
A pall hangs over Singapore football, but I believe the country's No. 1 sport will show signs of a bright future, within five years even.
As long as Sablon, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) technical director, is backed to the hilt.
Many will mock the premise, after the Lions' early exit from the Suzuki Cup.
They will say national coach V Sundramoorthy is not good enough with his defensive mindset.
I believe with the talent available, his Lions did as well as they could, especially when giving the much-vaunted Thais a fright, and the FAS should stick with him.
The reality is, most of Singapore's best footballers today are just not good enough to play an expansive game.
So many of them are not physically fit for the modern game.
Many in the squad have not even mastered the basics and are hardly comfortable on the ball.
Crucially, pace, which is such a hallmark of the modern game, is missing right through the team.
Ironically, what cheered me last Saturday was to hear Sablon say that local footballers today are well short in terms of technical ability.
I was also heartened when he said loudly that there is a fundamental problem with fitness.
Very publicly, the Belgian questioned the professionalism of local footballers.
Coming from one of the most important figures in the FAS, it was refreshingly honest, brutal even, telling all of us just where Singapore football stands right now.
It is not a pretty picture.
The good news is, Sablon and his team, including national youth teams head coach, Frenchman Richard Tardy, are already at work fixing the development system.
The 69-year-old's blueprint is impressively detailed, stressing the development of technical skills, mental strength, physical fitness and tactical awareness.
Quite simply, he wants youngsters in the various age-group teams to forget about winning and only play football the right way.
He wants the players to flourish using the pass-and-move style.
For that to work, they have to be supremely fit and be comfortable and confident on the ball, and Sablon has drawn up a comprehensive programme to address both facets.
Regarded as one of the key figures in the development of Belgium's current golden generation, Sablon has travelled around the country catching youngsters in action and he told me he has seen many with exciting ability.
He says they must be allowed to express themselves and make as many mistakes.
Then they will have every chance of becoming a footballer like Sundram.
How the Singapore coach needed an attacking force like Sundram out on the pitch at the Suzuki Cup.
Many wonder whether he is bold enough as a coach but I'm convinced the Lions could not have played any other way in what was a tough group.
Now a coach who is a stickler for discipline, I am curious how Sundram would handle Sundram the player, who was famously christened "The Dazzler", full of tricks, feints, dizzying dribbling skills and the ability to score goals simple and spectacular.
He was a liability in defence, though, and at times some of his coaches found Sundram the free spirit tricky to handle.
I believe he has developed a good understanding with Sablon and the rest of the technical team and I hope the FAS Council that will be elected in the first few months of 2017 extends Sundram's one-year contract.
He surprised me by getting the Lions to battle to the limit for more than a half with 10-men against Philippines. His team also created chances against Thailand and Indonesia.
Whoever is coach, it will not change the fact that the Lions are missing players with the attacking prowess of Sundram and Fandi, and natural strikers like Indra Sahdan.
The lean times will continue for the team for some time, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.
As long as the new FAS Council performs major surgery on the S.League, and ensures Sablon gets his way.