This stag can't get enough
Ismadi loves the pressure-cooker atmosphere at Tampines
When Ismadi Mukhtar signed for Tampines Rovers in 2010, he felt like he was joining the Manchester United of Singapore football.
Having played for Woodlands Wellington for two seasons before that, the 31-year-old right back used to watch the Stags and admire how the club, with the country's best players, played an attractive style of football other teams envied.
Five years on, Ismadi (right) has collected three Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League winners' medals, made more than 20 appearances in the Asian Football Confederation Cup and also featured in the national side, after a first call-up in 2014.
While the Stags are struggling to stay in the title race - they are fifth in the standings, 10 points adrift of leaders DPMM with a game in hand - Ismadi insists he is still enjoying his football and would not trade the jersey for any other in the country.
They face a must-win game in Malacca tonight against in-form Malaysian developmental side Harimau Muda.
Speaking to The New Paper before the team left yesterday, the veteran defender said: "It's always fun playing for Tampines; the pressure, the high expectations, going into battle with the best players.
"We are a team who are so used to winning that a draw often feels like a loss, and I like to play with that kind of ambition."
With 12 games left for the club, Ismadi believes the title is still within grasp.
It has been a difficult year for V Sundramoorthy's charges, who were knocked out early from both cup competitions.
After a slow start, the Stags picked up two wins in July and earned an important draw with Brunei DPMM to stay within touching distance of the leaders.
LOSING FEAR FACTOR
But they were pegged back after a defeat against the Warriors on Aug 7, and dropped another two points last Friday after a goalless draw with Balestier Khalsa.
"It's just that bit of luck that's been deserting us," said Ismadi, who pointed to the team's wretched record at the Jalan Besar Stadium this year.
In six matches on the artificial turf, the Stags have lost four and drawn two.
"We've created so many chances, but haven't converted them. And when we don't win, it demoralises us and puts more pressure on the foreign strikers (Mateo Roskam and Rodrigo Tosi).
"After a while, it seems our opponents don't fear us so much any more; they know they can take points from us."
Tampines' patchy form has raised the ire of Sundram on a few occasions, Ismadi admitted.
Faced with goalkeeping issues in the first half of the season, the former LionsXII coach also changed two of his foreign imports midway through the campaign.
"We had a glimpse of his temper after a few games we lost, for conceding silly goals," said the right back.
"It's good that he reacts rather than just do nothing. He's honest with his opinions.
"We still believe we can win the title. The other teams are also dropping points, so I think it will go down to the wire."
Ismadi is also keen to regain his place with the Lions.
Having started in the 2014 Suzuki Cup, he has since lost his spot to LionsXII winger Nazrul Nazari, who has put in a some good performances at right back in the Malaysian Super League recently.
"Nazrul deserves it, no two ways about it," Ismadi said.
"He came on for me when I got injured against Bangladesh earlier this year and did well, considering he's not a natural defender.
"I saw him in the 0-0 draw with Japan and he really surprised me.
"I'll take the next chance I get, but it's good to see the younger players step up as well."
Name: Ismadi Mukhtar
Club: Tampines Rovers
Position: Right back
Caps: 10 (Debut v Hong Kong, Oct 2014)
Favourite player: Paul Scholes
Favourite team: Manchester United