Tampines Rovers chairman explains why the club awarded youngster Irfan Najeeb with a three-year contract but wants his starlet to keep his feet on the ground.
When the 2018 Singapore Premier League (SPL) campaign kicked off with the new U-23 regulation, it severely impacted clubs as many saw it as a drawback, with coaches scrambling to find the right formula with their squads.
Tampines chairman Desmond Ong was one of those who had his reservations about the U-23 ruling but has since bought into the idea and is confident it will benefit Singapore football in the long run.
“I’ll admit that I was initially skeptical about giving youngsters a chance but Football Association of Singapore’ decision to focus on youth in the SPL this season forced our hands but it has actually been great. If not for this initiative, we probably wouldn’t see as many young players getting game time and you can see how not just Tampines have benefited from this but every other club is reaping the benefits of it,” Ong told FOX Sports Asia.
“There are also a few youngsters who have shown up for the other local clubs as well and that can only bode well for Singapore football in general.”
Instead of wallowing in the negatives, Tampines set out to implement the new rulings by ensuring they have a balanced squad for head coach Jurgen Raab’s selection.
In defence, Tampines are blessed with a plethora of stars in the defensive department with established internationals like Fahrudin Mustafic, Daniel Bennett, Madhu Mohana and Irwan Shah in their ranks.
But an injury crisis hit the Stags early on in the season and Raab was forced to throw 18-year-old starlet Irfan Najeeb into the deep end, with substitute appearances in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League qualifier against Bali United and then the AFC Cup against Persija Jakarta.
Despite a couple of nervy moments, Irfan gave a good account of himself and was rewarded with a starting berth against Johor Darul Ta’zim in March.
It was the start of a marvelous journey for the youngster who has gone on to become a mainstay in defence, alongside Fahrudin and Bennett.
Eight appearances in the SPL along with two goals to his name, Irfan is no longer seen as an inclusion due to the league regulations but is now on the lips of most coaches as a future Singapore defensive star.
Tampines saw that potential and moved swiftly to ensure their prized asset continues his development with them in the coming years by signing him to a three-year deal that will run through till 2020.
“Dealing with young players has always been a dicey situation. With youngsters, sometimes when you give them too much too quickly, their attitudes change and it all goes wrong quickly,” Tampines chairman Desmond Ong told FOX Sports Asia.
“We made a statement last season and said we want to try and do something rarely done in the local game which is to give players a long-term future beyond one season and this is how the management sees it.
“With Irfan, this long-term contract is a reward for his work on the pitch but also as a motivation to help him push even further from here on.
“At Tampines, we don’t sign players, we sign people. To be able to play is a bonus but that grounded, humble mentality was what made us decide to offer him the contract.
“We spoke at length with his parents and were very impressed by his family unit and the support around him. When you come for our home games at Our Tampines Hub, his entire family is always there rooting him on and they even made their own No. 23 t-shirts as a show of unity.
“For a player of his age, he is really focused on what he wants to achieve and besides football, he heads home, takes care of his younger siblings and helps with the household chores. At training, the senior players and coach find that he is very likeable and has a good character to go far in the game. He also looks up to his uncle Shahril [Ishak] as his motivation and that has helped him a lot.
“So cumulatively, we came to the decision to give him this contract.”
While Irfan may have snagged the first long-term contract for a young footballer at Tampines, Ong has made it clear that he is just the first of many to come, but they’ll have to earn it.
Ong said: “Irfan has signed but he isn’t the only one we are looking at. There are possibly three or four more youngsters that could be offered long-term deals but at this stage, Irfan has moved well ahead of his peers at the same age.
“There are a couple of youngsters with Tampines that I can think of and if you bring your ‘A’ game on and off the pitch and show us what you want to achieve as a youngster, we’ll try and back you up.
“Hopefully, Irfan’s contract serves as an inspiration to the rest of the youngsters at Tampines and even the wider Singapore football fraternity. We often talk about Bennett and how he is still so good at his age and when it comes to the other end of the spectrum, it is the same logic. If you are good enough, age doesn’t come into play.”
Tampines currently sit in second spot behind league leaders Albirex Niigata FC (S) and are on course to qualify for the AFC Champions League qualifiers and the AFC Cup.
With this new deal for Irfan, his dream of winning a national team call-up along with the 2018 SPL Young Player of the Year award may just come true.