'Rain or shine, he'll be there': Local football's Mr Dependable prepares Singapore for SEA Games success
In the first of a series of profiles for this year's SEA Games, Matthew Mohan speaks to a man who has gone from servicing Fandi Ahmad's air conditioning units to helping him kit out the team.
SINGAPORE: As he poses for a photograph on the sidelines of a Young Lions training session, kit man Omar Mohamed is delicately trying to speed things up.
"Is this okay? Enough? All okay?" he asks, a furtive eye aimed at the group of youngsters about to sprint his way.
The thump of boots turn into cries of laughter.
"Celebrity la!": the youngsters rib.
"You see, I told you that they would disturb me," the 61-year-old says bashfully.
Players have quick chats with Omar prior to the training session, coaches include him in their team talk, backroom staff even interrupt his interview to tease him - this is a kit man accepted and respected.
JACK OF ALL TRADES, MASTERING A NEW ONE
A former dispatch rider, taxi driver and air-conditioner repairman, Omar's path to becoming a kit man has been rather unorthodox.
"I knew Fandi back then, and he was also my favourite player," said Omar, who recalls being introduced by the late Singapore international Nasir Jalil.
"Sometimes when I saw him, I would say hello and that's how he knew me.
"Once he said: 'Omar, my aircon has a problem, so I went to his house to do it ... When I was doing the servicing at his home, he asked me: 'Omar, can you help my friend Kadir (Yahya)? The role is to be a part time kit man.'"
Despite being a football fan, Omar had to take some time to mull over the opportunity to help Kadir's national Under-16 side.
"I had no experience. I had to think about it first, because I was busy working at the shipping company as a dispatch rider and was also a part-time taxi driver," Omar explained. "I discussed it with Kadir – he said: 'Don’t worry – if you’re free, just come. Any time after four, you can come, Omar. I will help you also.' I felt at ease after that ."
For the next two years, Omar continued to juggle his other part-time roles, while familiarising himself with the new job.
While he got used to the routine of preparing jerseys and equipment, there were times where Omar had to go above and beyond.
Take resistance bands - which were not available as part of the training equipment. So Omar improvised.
"Last time we never bought all these things, I would go to a factory in Woodlands to get them. And it was free, they didn’t want them and threw it out so I collected them," he recalled.
"It was for special training sessions. We kept it after."
In 2006, Omar was offered the role as kit man for the national team, an opportunity he could not resist.
He said: "Of course I wanted it ... I didn’t think I could be the national kit man."
It was a job which would involve a certain level of confidentiality as well, he found out.
"During the interview they told me: 'You must keep everything confidential, you cannot tell people things about the players."
"Last time some of the media would ask me about the players – I said: 'I don’t know. If you ask me about what they drink, their jersey number and colour, I can tell you. If you ask me what the players do, I don’t know anything.'
"That’s not my job, it is for the coach to say."
Omar was not only responsible for kitting out the national side, but the Young Lions - the team which back then consisted of local U-23 players featuring in the domestic league - as well.
This meant going full-time, and taking a pay cut.
"When I worked dispatch, my salary was better than what I got (as a kit man). Because while working as a dispatch rider, I had other part time work also," explained Omar, who could bring in between five to six thousand monthly.
"Even my wife was also surprised (by the decision)."
'HE WILL GO THE EXTRA MILE'
Omar's role involves a significant amount of preparation.
"Normally I stand by four hours before (a training session)," he explained. "I prepare everything. Cones, balls, markers, drinks, the ice."
One set of markers, 22 balls, 10 bibs of three different colours - he rattles off some of the numbers.
During a match day, he meticulously lays out the players' kit and painstakingly matches their socks with the kit.
This is easier said than done as some players cut specific shapes in their full-length socks and wear these on top of an extra pair of socks.
"You must make the player comfortable to play," explained Omar.
And Omar's dedication to his job has won him the trust of players and staff alike.
“He is very close to the players, he works well with the coaches, he is always on time," Fandi told CNA. "He will even work extra after working hours – sometimes even on days off, he comes to do extra work to prepare for the boys. Even when he is at home and there is some request from the coaches or players, he will attend to it.
"He will find a way to make it happen ... He is very honest and hardworking. He will go the extra mile, you can depend on him. Rain or shine, he will be there.”
Omar shares a close bond with the players - in particular, Singapore skipper Hariss Harun, who also was a part of Kadir's U-16 side.
Said Omar: "Hariss is like my son. When I do my packing, he will come to my room and help me. We will pack and talk."
WITHIN SPITTING DISTANCE
Omar shares the highs and lows of the various sides which he helps to kit out. There have been instances where several minutes before the end of the matches, he would head straight to the dressing room because of how nervous he is.
"Sometimes I cry because we lose," he shared. "I was really sad when we played against Jordan. We lost there and needed just a draw to get to another round (of the Asian Cup qualifiers)."
"I believe every kit man would feel the same. You work so hard because of them, of course you want to win."
And when the team faces hostility from the stands, Omar too is in the line of fire.
"In the Malaysia Cup, I got spat at," he recalled. "Irwan Shah had been red carded (for now defunct Singapore side Lions XII), I was bringing Irwan into the changing room and the fans spat at us.
"The policeman said: 'Just go, just go!'"
Omar can count himself a veteran at the SEA Games, having travelled with the team for the 2007, 2009 and 2013 tournaments. On the three occasions, Singapore finished with a bronze.
"I never realised that three Games I went for, we finished with a bronze in all of them," he said. "I just do what I need to do. I just perform my responsibilities first, so there will be no complaints from players and coaches."
There's the added hassle of logistics at the tournament, where there is always a rush to wash laundry at the Games village, said Omar.
"In the village, every team wants to wash their laundry. So you must queue," he explained. "If a jersey is lost, there will be problems. But, so far so good, I hope it will never happen. I bring spares also in case.
"After the laundry is done, I check the jerseys one by one. First I have to check the flag, koyak (torn) or not. Then the number, then name, then I'll start to fold the jerseys."
With the clock ticking down on this year's edition of the Games which will begin in late November, Omar believes that the Singapore side can go one better than bronze.
"Before I leave, retire, I hope we can get a gold medal," he added. "I believe it is possible."
And Omar's involvement will be key, added Fandi.
"It is very important for him to be at the SEA Games," said the head coach. "He has the exposure, the experience, many years, more than ten years of experience doing this job, and it's hard to find another person like him."
And Omar may not be a celebrity, but clearly to the team, the 61-year-old is already a star.