Hougang's Lionel Tan: From tears to cheers
Rejected by Young Lions, Tan is making his mark with Hougang and hopes to make the SEA Games squad
|HOUGANG UNITED||ALBIREX NIIGATA|
It is no secret that there is a dearth of Chinese footballers in the Great Eastern-Hyundai S.League.
This season, there are just 16 of them and Hougang United's Lionel Tan is in a league of his own - he is the only Chinese centre back around.
Just 20 and taking part in his first S.League campaign, Tan, a ball-playing defender, has been impressing his coach Philippe Aw since he made his debut.
Aw's faith in the youngster has seen him field Tan in 10 league and cup games (eight starts).
In fact, among the Chinese players, Tan's 736 minutes clocked is second to only Warriors FC flanker Ho Wai Loon, who played 10 minutes more but one game fewer.
"He has good physical attributes, he is strong and good in the air," said Aw of Tan.
"For someone so young, he has good brains, good courage and a good attitude, which makes him easy to coach.
"On the pitch, he doesn't panic, he plays the ball with intention.
"Our intention is to expose him to a higher level of football, give him a chance to make the SEA Games squad and he has shown he can handle it."
For someone so young, he has good brains, good courage and a good attitude, which makes him easy to coach. On the pitch, he doesn't panic, he plays the ball with intention. Hougang United coach Philippe Aw on centre back Lionel Tan
Rejection was what motivated Tan, who was deemed not good enough to make the Garena Young Lions squad after graduating from the National Football Academy.
Then he turned the tears into fuel to prove he has what it takes to cut it in Singapore's top flight.
The 1.83m-tall defender recalled: "My best mates Zharfan Rohaizad and Joshua Pereira had got in. I got a call and expected it to be good news, but it was to inform me I was dropped.
"After I hung up, I cried because I was really disappointed.
"Playing in the S.League was what I had wanted since I was 16. Looking back, I didn't have the best of years in 2015 as I was down with a groin injury and shingles at key moments of the season."
TAN'S FOOTBALL JOURNEY
Tan's football journey started when he was four years old.
From a kickabout with his family at a park, the pastime took a more serious turn after he was inspired by his elder brother's trial with the Singapore Sports School.
It would take a few more twists and turns before he got to where he is today.
He reunited with his former NFA Under-16 and U-17 coach Robin Chitrakar at Home United and won the Prime League and FA Cup titles last year.
His mature displays impressed then-Home coach Aw, who invited Tan to join the S.League squad's training sessions.
"I had to train more, but training with the likes of Sirina Camara, Song Ui Yong, Shamil Sharif, Aqhari Abdullah and Ken Ilso really helped me develop a lot," said Tan, who played thrice for Home in The New Paper League Cup last term.
But Tan's first-team training opportunities vanished after Aw was re-designated as the Protectors' head of youth development and performance management late last season, with Aidil Sharin named the head coach.
Without a hint of resentment, the former The New Paper Dollah Kassim Award nominee said: "I totally understand how it could be difficult for coach Aidil, coming in as the new coach and needing to get the results.
"But I was not content to be playing in the Prime League any more, so when there was no call from Home about this season, I didn't think twice about joining coach Philippe at Hougang when he called."
One of Tan's season highlights would surely include last Friday's 3-2 win over Home.
Although the league's top scorer Stipe Plazibat scored from an opportunistic effort to take his tally to 17, Tan neutralised the Croatian hitman for most of the match.
If he does the same to Albirex Niigata's 16-goal Tsubasa Sano tonight, it will certainly go a long way towards convincing Richard Tardy that he is ready for the AFC U-23 qualifiers this month and the SEA Games next month.
"I want to achieve something with Singapore," a determined Tan said.
"Every footballer wants to play for his country, but I graduated from Nanyang Polytechnic in April and will be enlisting for National Service in October, and who knows what will happen after my ORD (Operationally Ready Date)?
"This is why I just want to fight for every chance now that I'm match fit."
TONIGHT'S OTHER FIXTURE:
- Balestier Khalsa v Home United