Following a two week hiatus from Singapore Premier League action, our beloved Tampines Rovers were back in action against the reigning SPL Champions, Lion City Sailors. This fixture has become one that everyone associated with the club looks forward to. It is no secret that the Sailors and the Stags have an intense feud - for they couldn’t be any more different.
This a clash of principles and the rivalry permeates through all levels - whether it be on the pitch, the touchline, or in the stands. When the referee blew the first whistle, we braced ourselves for a high intensity grudge match, just like the previous five encounters, and we were not disappointed.
From the onset, the Stags played with utmost confidence, expressing themselves on the ball and daring to showcase flair in their dribbling and passing abilities. Not many would have given the Stags a fighting chance before this fixture, but never underestimate Tampines Rovers. It wasn’t long before we began launching waves of offensive movements and in the 5th minute, we came close to scoring.
Taufik Suparno commandeered the left wing weaving past Sailors’ defenders, leaving them in his wake. Cutting in, the Stags’ forward brilliantly linked up with Boris Kopitović in the penalty box. Our towering Montenegrin went for placement in his strike but the Sailors were saved by the woodwork. Boris had beat the keeper but his shot had ricocheted off the bottom right goal post. Zehrudin Mehmedović picked up the loose ball and squared it to Taufik, who was finding ample space in the penalty box.
However, Taufik’s effort was kept out by Hassan Sunny who desperately threw himself in front of the shot. Unlucky, but the Stags had breached the star-studded defensive line with relative ease. This marked the beginning of our onslaught and we were only going to increase the intensity with each successive attack.
We came close once again in the 21st minute. Mehmedović was the architect as he executed a world class through ball to Yasir Hanapi. On his day, Yasir is arguably one of the most skillful midfielders in the Singapore Premier League. Against the Sailors, he was in fine form. Our skipper collected Mehmedović’s pass and knocked it past a helpless Hassan and was extremely unfortunate to have his shot denied by Amirul Adli who was forced to clear the ball before it crept into an open goal.
For the majority of the first half, the Sailors were at sixes and sevens. Our Stags played with burning passion and a strong desire to win - priceless qualities that the fans were proud to see.
The Sailors did step up their efforts towards the last 10 minutes of the first half proceedings. However, the backline held firm and we went into the break with a 0-0 scoreline. Kim Shinwook posed little threat. The South Korean international was often outjumped by the noticeably shorter Ryaan Sanizal and Shuya Yamashita, who took turns to nullify his aerial presence. Chris van Huizen and Irwan Shah ensured the wings remained secure and went into overdrive to trace back and intercept threatening balls.
In all fairness, we should have been a few goals up at half time. The Sailors survived through the skin of their teeth and were extremely lucky that the Stags did not convert their chances.
The Second Half.
The Sailors upped the ante once the second half commenced but the Stags were ready for whatever that was thrown their way. Despite the changes made at half time, the Sailors struggled to break through - a pretty remarkable feat for a club with so much offensive prowess and top class attacking options.
Then, in the 53rd minute, tragedy struck.
Haiqal Paisha seemed as if he was through on goal but Chris van Huizen managed to knick the ball away. However, while he clearly got the ball, his outstretched leg grazed Haiqal, who by the referee’s count, earned the penalty for Sailors.
Kim Shinwook, who was silent up till that point, stepped up for the spotkick. With Shuya or Ryaan unable to mark him for the penalty, the South Korean international converted from the spot and gave the Sailors the lead.
Despite conceding, our Stags did not give up. In fact, they bolstered their efforts to equalize and pushed themselves to the limits. It was clear that the team was playing for the badge.
In the 68th minute, after engineering several offensive movements, our hard work appeared to have finally paid off. Hassan came off his line to punch away Chris van Huizen's dangerous cross but the ball landed to Firdaus Kasman. Firdaus saw that Hassan was way off his line and immediately lobbed the ball into the back of the net. Yet, the linesman raised his flag and judged Yasir to have interfered with Hassan in an offside position. Despite protests from our Stags, the referees did not budge.
Knowing that we still had slightly over 20 minutes to play, we regained our composure to soldier on - professionalism is something that is within our DNA, forged over the decades. Six minutes later, we finally equalized… or so we thought.
Our midfield maestro Kyoga Nakamura served a delicious over-the-top through ball that found Mehmedović in the penalty box. The Serbian executed a brilliant overhead kick that sent the ball into the back of the net. But once again, the goal was ruled out because Mehmedović was determined to be offside.
Two disallowed goals in the span of a few minutes would crush normal men, but the Stags have proven not to be your average footballers and Tampines Rovers certainly isn’t an ordinary SPL team. With more than 70 years of history, the club has overcome many challenges and established itself as one of the most dominant sides since the formation of the S.League in 1996. The Stags fulfilled the mantle passed down by their countless predecessors by mustering up every bit of energy, and gave it their all throughout the match, just like Tampines sides of the past.
Importantly, we carried out the traditions of the club that have been set decades ago. Young players like Marc Ryan Tan, Amirul Haikal, Ong Yu En, Ryaan Sanizal, and Adam Reefdy played at various points in this fixture and were entrusted to perform in this high profile match, and this speaks to the club’s long term plan.
As the final whistle blew, it was apparent that Lady Luck was certainly not on the Stags’ side last night. Our team gave everything they had in this game, and it wasn’t just the players who did so. Our fans were truly the 12th man in this fixture as well. They were united in chanting words of support to will the players on, and did their part to rile up The Crew, the Sailors’ official fanbase. We thank everyone who turned up to attend the game and those who tuned in to show their support from home.
We may have lost the fixture but we can certainly hold our heads up high.
We hope to see you this Friday for our first home game of the season, and the Stags will continue to do their best - Tampines Rovers is always primed for success.