|Season 51||L||3 - 5||Tournament (Playoffs)|
|Season 51||W||3 - 4||Tournament (Group Phase)|
New Birds Soar
After a twenty-six season long interregnum, by far the longest interval between Cup-winning campaigns, with no past multiple champions having waited longer than six seasons, Grilled Birds finally ushered in a new era proper with their third national trophy.
While finals opponents Random Curiosity FC stayed active till the very last day, with their redoubtable Scottish head coach Ivar Sharp presenting Russian central defender Irakliy Buynovskiy as their S$5.3 million emergency replacement for the injured Paris Lidorikis, neither sight nor sound emitted from The Cooking Pot, with security disrupting several attempts by camera-equipped drones to overfly the stadium.
It was only on the morning of finals day itself that a bus with blacked-out windows emerged from the rear exit, confirming that the players had been preparing together for the weekend after all; however, only Grilled's own gaffer Niculae Stanca
and a handful of support staff emerged from it after it arrived at Undiscovered Paradise, having gained a train of journalists en route; Stanca was happy enough to reveal that the players had already made it in via several assorted vans, and that they were not to be disturbed until kick-off.
Clearly less than pleased, attention went to Random Curiosity FC, whose teamsheet indicated that other than Buynovskiy, their only change over the side that defeated St. Xavier's FC in the semi-finals was starting Dean Nightingale instead of former U-20 star Ang Tse Jian on the right wing, a straight like-for-like replacement rumoured to be down to a knock to Ang.
As for Grilled, for all their dedication to secrecy, they were completely unchanged in the end, in keeping with the Plan A or bust strategy that had kept them in such good stead. The only adjustment, if it could be called that, was goalkeeper Wong Tian Han
abandoning his usual full orange kit for a white one, due to a clash with Random's home strip, which bore a heavy resemblance to the Netherlands' 1988 classic vintage.
Most pre-game indications pointed to an engrossing clash of philosophies, with Grilled's all-out attack pitted against the more prudent and sound basic 3-5-2 of Random. The Birds' showy victories in the previous rounds appeared to have endeared them to neutrals, with informal polls in the dailies finding that roughly two-thirds of their readers expect them to prevail - which is exactly the sort of thing that Stanca wanted to keep his men from knowing.
With the necessary preliminaries completed, it was time for the action to begin, and as befitting this Grilled side, they went right for Random's neck. One of the topics that their top-secret practice sessions had covered must have been the effectiveness of starting strong, and indeed there was no wary taking of measures going on.
Chow carried it up as far as he could at top speed before being cut off by Buynovskiy, but by then he had laid it off to Mohd Safri bin Mohd Kassim
. Random seemed to have all of Grilled's key attacking personnel zonally covered... when Gene Filippone
, the Birds' only non-local starter, popped up where he was definitely not supposed to be. Not expecting the extra man, Random let the Swiss slip through, where he delivered a startlingly precise lob over Jan Skjæveland and sent the near 120000 spectators into a frenzy.
That put a swift end to debate on whether Random Curiosity could shut Grilled out, and also led almost all punters on the opening goal to rip their betting slips up. Sharp remained sitting impassively in his dugout, and if Random's supporters were concerned at that, they need not have been, as it simply showed that the experienced Scot had faith that his team were made of stern stuff.
He was right, as it was Random's uniform coverage of the pitch that looked far more adequate in the ensuing minutes. Despite never having worked with his wingbacks before, Buynovskiy was the very image of quiet competence, and their practised wing raids meant that they could test Grilled at little risk. Sergio Benedetto mixed it up with a farsighted long ball meant for Filip Wenc in the tenth minute, that only the outstretched leg of Ling Fuquan
managed to cut out.
After about half-an-hour of this cat-and-mouse, the discomfited Birds finally thought they had another opening. Low Aik Jia
hit a cross in early as he saw Chow Ying Lee
making his move, and the Grilled speedster hit top gear to slot himself in right before Skjæveland arrived. Without pausing, Chow then twisted at the hips to scoop the ball towards where the goal was... but Buynovskiy had seen through that, and parked himself on the line.
His long punt to Danilo De Sario forced Filippone to usher it out for a corner, as Random turned crisis into opportunity in a blink. It was only their first one of the match, but as it transpired, one was enough - Benedetto bent it purposefully into the box, and Ladislav Mužíček came one step ahead of Wong Tian Han
, to nod it gracefully over the Grilled stopper.
It was end-to-end now, as the tactical facade that had been imposed on the contest was stripped off in an instant. The Birds went back to what they knew best, and Chow again caused all sorts of problems from the kick-off. While there was no Filippone this time, Wong Ping Shun
barged in on the overlap from the left, and instinct took over once Chow released it to him. With Ladislav Mužíček hot on his heels, Wong leapt the final metre, and barely nicked it into the bottom corner.
If Wong hadn't meant that, Low Aik Jia
certainly had his bicycle kick all thought out. The 22 year-old former Sentosa Soccer Club trainee may be years younger than his teammates, but he certainly had the guts of a seasoned traveller and six-million dollar rated player. No one else, bar perhaps Mohd Safri, would have tried such a low-percentage move with the stakes this high, but Low had no other intention once Wong's cross sailed his way, with his back to goal. The Grilled section erupted as Low was mobbed, and referee Andy Wright took some time to get the game restarted.
The Birds would be mistaken, if they thought it would now be plain sailing, though. Random would give them a taste of their own medicine with a surprise direct attack, and Woon Shun An
was reduced to trying to bring Dean Nightingale down after realising that he was the last man. He failed as Nightingale evaded to score, and was booked during Random's celebrations for the attempt.
Still, Grilled would have expected to keep the lead at half-time, but were denied even that. Not imagining that Random would pull the same stunt again, they were completely taken aback when the capped Haji bin Omar sidestepped Low and spun around a bewildered Filippone, before sending it over to Filip Wenc. With only Wong left to beat, Wenc gobbled the big chance up without fail to equalise.
What the finals was lacking in subtlety, it was making up with pure excitement, as the intervening break felt like an eternity. Unlike the semifinals against Ropelearner FC, Stanca ordered his squad into the dressing room this time, and Grilled nearly got reprimanded by the match officials for being late out.
The effect was much the same, though. Again, Wong's size created a matchup problem down his flank, as Ladislav Mužíček laboured to contain the big winger. His attentions were insufficient in the 53rd minute, when Wong shrugged him aside to chest down a short diagonal chip from Tian Yonghang
, before firing past Skjæveland's despairing dive. The set-up wasn't pretty or skilful at all, but most wingers in his position would have wished for Wong's simple mass in that situation.
Just as the fans were beginning their impromptu tune comparing Wong to their much-beloved finals hat-trick hero Hidde van Liere, their gritty opponents made it splutter out in mid-verse. For the third time, they got matters all square, as Ling Fuquan
tried to tackle Danilo De Sario rather too obviously. The clever Italian forward sidestepped deftly, and pulled Filippone to him before backheeling to Bolesław Świątek to power in.
Television cameras caught Stanca burying his head in his arms at this, and it was not hard to guess why - Grilled had tried, and failed, three times to shake Random off, and in such cases, the chasing team is expected to gain a psychological advantage. With the Birds never convincing in defence, a goal for Random might well break their conviction once and for all.
Or so the thinking went. Instead, Grilled became the more aggressive party, as they responded to captain Tian Yonghang
's call. Random Curiosity FC had demonstrated that they were technically at least Grilled's equal, so it had to be something outside of plain footballing ability that would separate the sides. The Birds found that vital ingredient, in the links that were forged at academy level.
First off, Mohd Safri bin Mohd Kassim
linked up with old Chicken Wings partner Zhao Jing Wei
, replicating the at-times telepathic understanding that had seen them combine for thirty goals in what some consider as the Wings' strongest striker-midfielder tandems. Born just 46 days apart, the two might be said to have been made to support each other, and once Mohd Safri eked space out for Zhao on the edge of the area, how could his friend possibly miss?
Again holding a precarious one-goal lead, it was down to Grilled to make it count, and this they managed six minutes later through two other academy graduates. Tian Yonghang
will readily admit to never having being a superstar at that, or really any level - well in Mohd Safri's shadow during his time with the Wings, his goal return then was pathetic, and he never made it to the national U-20 side either.
Nevertheless, the low-profile 28 year-old has collected two league Golden Boots, which neither of his better-known strike partners have done, and is now captain of his hometown club, which is surely more than what most can ask for. Few doubt that Tian is green through and through, and when he finally outwitted Buynovskiy and cracked a piledriver in with his right foot, most thought that he had gotten what he deserved.
Not quite, as the shot was miraculously lifted by Skjæveland onto the crossbar - but this only meant that his junior would help out. Ling Fuquan
remains the Wings' most expensive product ever, shattering all past marks with a S$3.6 million transfer to Spain at seventeen, but while he has made a respectable career for himself, Ling has never quite lived up to his initial billing.
Until this moment, that is. Time seemed to slow for the spectators as the ball bounced just short of Świątek's foot, before rising to waist-height just to the side of Ling. This was not a shot that one would expect a defender to make, but this was his
instant - the Wings boys' instant. Ling swung with eyes half-closed, and the ball duly hit the back of the net. Perhaps not totally by coincidence, the first three to throw themselves on him were Tian, Mohd Safri and Zhao, just like they did so many years ago on small, unknown fields.
Of course, this was hardly the end of it. Random Curiosity FC had fought back three times, so they could conceivably do it a fourth. Danilo De Sario began calling for long balls, which his side obliged with. However, the Birds were defending in depth this time, and as the minutes went by with Random always threatening but never quite finding that all-important finish, their hopes waned.
Low Aik Jia
began taking the ball to the corner flag with five minutes left, which infuriated the Random supporters, but his job wasn't to keep everyone happy. This went on till the 89th, when a poker-faced Stanca put his last touches on the final. Off came Gene Filippone
, and on went an applauding Abdul bin Jantan
Already 34 years of age, the Wings old boy may not get his long-held wish of playing in the S-League, having transitioned from midfield mainstay into reserve winger. Despite this, he will now not end his career empty-handed, as so many great Grilled players have before him, with his substitute appearance assuring him of a cup-winners' medal.
bin Jantan was passed the ball at the first opportunity... and immediately booted it out for the second substitute. Ling Fuquan
walked slowly to the sidelines as his regular partner Rashid bin Ahmad
waited. While not an academy graduate, the former national U-20 defender Rashid has been utterly dependable since his return from Germany, and has earned his medal too.
Whether the last man truly merited one might be slightly more debatable, given that 22 year-old former Chicken Wings forward Leong Wan Kang
has been in just five competitive matches this season. Actually, this did not need spelling out on hindsight, but just to make it clear, Mohd Safri winked and mouthed two words at the cameras as Low Aik Jia
proudly marched out for the overwhelmed Leong to get in place for the final whistle: