Football: After years in the wilderness and a winless season, Tanjong Pagar aim to build on victory
SINGAPORE: Delwinder Singh is more used to crunching tackles than crunching the numbers but he is well aware of the figure in question.
That was the number of days since Tanjong Pagar United’s last win in Singapore’s professional football league.
And while the numbers don’t lie, sometimes they don’t tell the entire truth, said Delwinder, a defender for the Jaguars.
After all, the team had sat out the competition for five seasons since their last win in 2014. They’d then gone winless through the 2020 campaign.
But still, it rankled.
“Personally, it did bother me quite a bit,” Delwinder explained. “Even on a normal basis as a player … if I win this game today and the next game I lose, it would already affect me.”
Then on Apr 10 there was a breakthrough. The Jaguars mauled the Young Lions 4-0 in the battle of the big cats.
The barren run was over.
Watching from the stands of Jalan Besar Stadium, Delwinder, who had missed the game due to illness, felt a load had been lifted. “One word to really describe everything is relief. That’s the biggest thing, just getting that thing off us and moving on,” he said.
On the pitch, there were smiles all round.
“Usually after games, you would look down or not talk to each other, but this one was all smiles,” defender Shahrin Saberin told CNA.
“Some of them said that it has been a while since they won, like one year ... It was a good feeling to win. Especially the coaches, you can see the hard work they put in week in, week out and finally they got the three points they wanted.”
‘IT DOES HURT’
Tanjong Pagar took part in the league - then known as the S.League - from 1996 to 2004. They were known as Tiong Bahru United, before undergoing a name change in 1998.
After sitting out the 2005 season, the club rejoined the league from 2011 to 2014, before withdrawing due to financial issues.
The Jaguars suffered a torrid return back to the league in 2020, amassing only five points by the end of the season.
The team failed to win, drawing five games and losing nine during a campaign interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Definitely, it was tough. I think it's just normal for everyone, even apart from soccer, just in life when you try so much, sometimes things don't go (your way), it (heads) will go down,” recalled Delwinder.
He would even face questions from family, friends and old acquaintances. Some would even joke about when the first win would come.
“I know they don’t mean it, it’s just like that kind of joking with a close friend. But it does hurt.”
Sometimes, the winless streak felt like a curse of sorts, he added.
“As players - as much as we shouldn’t say it - but sometimes it is just (felt) cursed,” he said.
“It is like how much we try but the ball just won't go in but how much we try and defend, the ball still goes in.”
But the previous season also served as motivation for the team, explained Delwinder.
"The whole process was eye-opener and a motivation to go all out, to improve yourself as a person and also get that first win for the club," he said.
There had been a number of times the team had gone agonisingly close to that elusive first victory, most notably in their previous fixture against high-flying Hougang United.
Tanjong Pagar had gone ahead twice, only for their opponents to equalise. Then nine minutes from time, a through ball picked out Reo Nishiguchi, who lashed a strike past the Hougang goalkeeper.
As the bench mobbed Nishiguchi, Shahrin collapsed to the ground outside the huddle, his arms pointed to the sky.
They were minutes away.
But deep into stoppage time, Hougang grabbed an equaliser.
“For me, it was (a feeling of ) disappointment. We should have won the game. It was there, but (there was) the lapse of concentration from all of us. But at the end of the day that’s a good sign, I got a good feeling from that day onwards that we will do better every time,” Shahrin said.
“The coaches were very positive because they saw that we could have won ... because they know our abilities.”
And the team took the draw as a good sign of progress, added Delwinder.
“It was a good thing going into the next game because it kind of gave players the feeling that we could do it, if we put our hearts and minds to it.”
REPAYING THE FAITH
Prior to Tanjong Pagar’s breakthrough last Saturday, their last win had come against Malaysian side Harimau Muda B in October 2014.
One of those on the scoresheet was Hafiz Osman, now a fitness coach with the team.
“It was very satisfying because it was a long wait," said Hafiz, who skippered that team.
“I always kept believing that whoever plays for Tanjong Pagar, they are able to make it happen, to win.”
When Hafiz first joined the club in 2012, it also took the team some time to claim their first victory, he recalled.
“I went through that phase so I understand how the boys feel. At that time, I believed in the team, believed in the club that we were going to get their first win. And eventually we got our first win, and in that win, I scored our only goal,” he said.
It was therefore important that the players kept believing, said Hafiz. In his opinion, the overdue victory was coming.
“We have a style of play, a philosophy that we want the players to adapt to, so we expect the players to trust the process and the players trusted the process so they shouldn’t be surprised that they won 4-0. It was actually working,” he explained.
“For us we are happy not only because of the win and the three points, but because of the way the players played. They played to what we wanted.”
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The win was also about repaying the faith that others had in the team, said Delwinder.
"The biggest thing for me as a player was really repaying - firstly the community, the coaches, and everyone. The faith they have in me as a player and also in us as a team," he said.
"Next would be the fans. It has been painful for everyone. As a player, I can really feel the pain but for them sitting there and with COVID, not being able to come, it's even more painful."
Now that the Jaguars have got their first victory, it is important that they build on the result, said Hafiz. They next face table-toppers Albirex Niigata on Saturday in what will be a stern test of their credentials.
“The goal is to be better than last season, not be last, to move up, maybe somewhere in the mid-table,” he said. “(A) mid-table (finish) would be a reasonable one for us, anything high is always a bonus.”
Defender Shahrin noted in particular how hungry his teammates were for that first win.
“I could see it from their eyes - especially for the players here last season - and could see from the way they talk, they said they really wanted that one win to move forward. That’s why after that Young Lions game, I think the sense of belief (is there)," he explained.
“We’ll go game by game, but I think mid-table (we) can (do it). If possible, you never know about the top four… It is still early, fix, six games. If we keep on being consistent and keep on winning, you’ll never know.”