Coaching football in this modern era is tough, but former national footballer V Sundramoorthy is relishing the challenges that come with the job, he told writer Alywin Chew as he recounted how he got started with the sport with the support of his family.

(From left to right) LionsXII players Hariss Harun and Shahril Ishak sit beside their coach V Sundram during an interview session
(From left to right) LionsXII players Hariss Harun and Shahril Ishak sit beside their coach V Sundram during an interview session.

The open fields of Sembawang in the early 1970s were the stage where V Sundramoorthy’s footballing dreams were first played out. Together with his kampung friends, Sundram would emulate his footballing idols of that era, such as Liverpool’s Kevin Keegan and John Toshack, some of the most skilful forwards the English side has ever seen.

He relished playing an attacking role, usually as a midfielder, or at times a second forward operating in the hole just behind the main striker. He loved creating and scoring goals and it was evident that he clearly had the skills to do so. Sundram went on to play for Canberra Primary School, Upper Thomson Secondary and Our Lady of Lourdes and Boys’ Town Vocational Institute, before taking to the pitch for his local club Sembawang SC in 1982.

“I mean, I was going to be training with the very same players whom I looked up to when I was a kid. It was really a mixed bag of emotions.”

Sundram, who like Singapore turns 50 this October, has been affectionately dubbed as “The Dazzler” for his sublime dribbling and finishing skills which has turned him into a Singapore footballing legend. But all this might not have been possible without family support and influence. Sundram’s father used to play competitive football for various teams, including the Singapore Indians team, and his uncle, too, used to be a national footballer.

“I think it was Torch, or Tops, or maybe Topper. I can’t really remember the brand but it starts with T,” he says with a laugh.

“That was my first pair of boots and my father got them for me. He was really supportive of me playing football and he bought me whatever I need. But back in those days, when your boot was torn or damaged, you couldn’t just head to the shop and buy another pair of boots. I had to really take good care of them,” he adds.

Sundram was only 17 years old when he received a call from the national football coach informing him of his call-up. Though excited, Sundram said he was also rather apprehensive about the opportunity to represent his country.

“I was at home when I received that call. This was in 1983, in January, just a few months before the SEA Games. I felt that I was still too young. I mean, I was going to be training with the very same players whom I looked up to when I was a kid. It was really a mixed bag of emotions,” he says.

An old photo of Singapore’s footballers. V Sundram is on the extreme right
An old photo of Singapore’s footballers. V Sundram is on the extreme right.

But as it turned out, Sundram was his own harshest critic as pandemonium erupted in the Kallang Stadium when the teenager scored the winning goal against a star-studded Malaysian team in their 1983 SEA Games opening match. Fandi Ahmad scored the other goal in the Causeway derby that ended 2-1. Singapore went on to win a silver medal in the tournament.

“That definitely counts as one of my career highlights – scoring that goal against Malaysia. I mean, just two years before that match I was watching stars like Santokh Singh in the Malaysia Cup. Two years later I actually managed to score against them,” he says.

That momentous win propelled Sundram to achieve even greater success in his footballing career as he followed in Fandi’s European footsteps, becoming the second Singaporean to play in a foreign club. Sundram spent a season at Swiss club FC Basel before moving on to play for Kedah where he became a cult hero.

“I love coaching and I think it’s beautiful – you manage your players, you plan training and you try to achieve something with the team.”

His footballing exploits on the field may be long over now, but Sundram is still very much involved in the sport, albeit from the sidelines. Now the head coach of Tampines Rover, Sundram says that he loves the challenges that coaching in this modern era brings.

“Football has changed a lot. It has become a lot more intense and we also need to focus on factors like nutrition. Back during my time it was very straightforward. We would go for training and just do what the coach told us to do,” he says. “But I love coaching and I think it’s beautiful – you manage your players, you plan training and you try to achieve something with the team. It’s these challenges that keep me going.” he says.

V Sundram yells instructions to his LionsXII players from the sidelines
V Sundram yells instructions to his LionsXII players from the sidelines.

He may not have won as many medals and awards as he did when he was a player, but Sundram has transitioned from his role of a playmaker on the field to a kingmaker for teams. After all, he was the one who led the LionsXII to the Malaysia Super League title in 2013.

Unsurprisingly, Sundram’s infamous killer instinct in front of goal has rubbed off on his coaching philosophy: he wants to see his teams get forward and score goals. But like any good coach, he understands the need to find a balance between desire and pragmatism.

“It really depends on the material we have – if we have suitable players then we go out and attack the opponent. If we don’t, we just have to adapt. But yes, I don’t like to keep the ball behind. I love a good possession and attacking game,” he says.

 

All words by Alywin Chew, photos by Football Association Singapore.
Published by the Singapore Memory Project

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