Lionel Lewis – A Goalkeeper From Singapore & Asia
Many top goalkeepers such as Hassan Sunny and Izwan Mahbud have rise and established themselves in the National Team, if not regionally. However, there will always be a name which many will remember for his
Many top goalkeepers such as Hassan Sunny and Izwan Mahbud have rise and established themselves in the National Team, if not regionally. However, there will always be a name which many will remember for his heroic performance in between the goal for Singapore between year 2002 to 2011. We have the opportunity to sit down with him at Cafe Football over a lunch while we speak about his competitive footballing days. 2 times Tiger Cup (AFF Suzuki Cup) winners, 2004 Tiger Cup MVP and Asian Footballer of the Year Award nominee, Lionel Lewis.
JPF: You have been busy with NYP (Nanyang Polytechnic) Student Department managing all the sports for the students since your retirement in year 2012, do you ever at any point miss your footballing days?
LL: Honestly, I miss playing football with my friends, especially my National Team mates such as Baihakki (Khaizan), Qiu Li, Jiayi (Shi), Aleksandar (Duric), Farra (Mustafic Fahrudin), Daniel (Bennett) and many more. I really miss that kind of friendship which we had in the team sport. In fact, I have been offered part-time contract to play in the S.League but after giving it a serious thought, my mind is set with this second career of mine. I find this current job more stable and I am happy that I can have this opportunity to guide and inspire the students. And as the years go by, I am getting more busier with my job now. Returning to professional football, even at a part-time basis, is probably already not an option.
JPF: Having won 1 S.League title, 2 Singapore Cup and 2 AFF Suzuki Cup. You were the 2004 Suzuki Cup MVP and were even nominated for Asian Football of the Year Award in 2006. You are probably the most successful footballer Singapore has ever produced. Now looking back at your career, how do you feel?
LL: Looking back at what I have been through, I feel that I was extremely lucky. I have always played as a defender or a striker during my school days, never a goalkeeper. When I went for trials at Balestier (Khalsa), Woodlands (Wellington) & Sembawang (Ranger), I was rejected by all of them. Never did I imagine in my last trial attempt, I would actually be spotted by Robert Lim and get into one of the strongest youth teams, Geylang United (currently known as Geylang International) which was actually packed with all National Youth players, as a goalkeeper! And immediately, I was the first choice goalkeeper in my first ever year as a goalkeeper for the team!
Fast forward to my senior career, my first called up to the National Team was against Liverpool at the age of 18yrs old in year 2001! Obviously, I was not the most experienced goalkeeper but I am glad that Jan Poulsen trusted me and let me had a go at the game in the second half against the English team. A week later, I was once again in goal playing against Manchester United! Seriously, I couldn’t ask for a better start by playing teams of such caliber in my first called-up, considering that year was my first S.League season too.
(Photo: Courtesy of Lionel Lewis)
JPF: You retired at the age of 30 years old with 73 caps for Singapore National Team.
LL: I did my very best for my country in every match that I was called upon. With great respect to outfield players, it is really not easy to earn a national cap for a goalkeeper. You seldom get to see a goalkeeper being substituted in a game due to tactical change. So for a goalkeeper to earn a cap, most likely it means a full 90 minutes match for the club or country. I am proud to say my 73 caps for Singapore are all full 90 minutes match. And this is a memory that I will always hold dearly to my heart. And yes, FAS did ask me to continue but I really think it’s enough and I have to move on in my life.
JPF: Tell us more about your nomination for the AFC Asian Footballer of the Year Award.
LL: That was a great honor for me to be nominated along with some of the finest Asian footballers. I could still recall Raddy (Radojko Avramovic) was the one who broke the news to me during one of our centralized trainings. He also said never in Singapore football history anyone was nominated for such a prestige award – I am the first! I was happy but more of a surprise actually to know of my nomination. I was not playing in Europe; neither was I playing in any of the top league in Asia, so to be nominated it really took me by surprise. I also did not manage to attend the ceremony at Dubai, as I was involved in the National Team’s centralized training. Personally, winning or not winning does not matter to me. Most importantly, I enjoy that memory. Even if I do win the award, I know that I will have to work doubly hard to keep up with that recognition.
JPF: You have many highlights during your football career, which has to be the most memorable one?
LL: The most memorable one has to be the winning of Tiger Cup (now known as Suzuki Cup) at home in year 2004. In the earlier 2 editions, year 2000 and 2002, Singapore did not do well and Singapore football was at the lowest point with many people criticizing the team. So that was when many of us, the younger batch such as Baihakki (Khaizan), Shahril (Ishak) and myself were brought into the team. When we went into the 2004 Tiger Cup campaign, nobody gave us a chance. We put aside the pressure and managed to string a few good results in the tournament. As the positive results grew, our confidence grew as well. In the Final, we defied all odds against the Indonesians in Senayan to secure an important 3-1 victory. In the return leg, we made the game ours.
(Photos: Courtesy of Jaron/Junpiter Futbol)
JPF: You were invited to trial with big European clubs like Manchester City & Grasshopper Club Zurich in year 2007, how did the trial go?
LL: The opportunity at Manchester City came through FAS. I was training under former England goalkeeper coach Mike Kelly whom I have already known during my 2 months training stint with Arsenal back in year 2000. Although Mike was the Grasshopper’s coach when I was invited to Manchester City, he was involved as both Manchester City and Grasshopper were affiliated. Then obviously the trial with the Manchester team did not materialize as I had issue with the permit – Singapore had to be the top 70-footballing countries. That was when Mike invited me to Grasshopper for a trial. When I agreed and arrived at Grasshopper, the bad news came – Mike left the club. I went on with the trial and did decently well. However, limited playing time could be a big issue if I were to sign. Through FAS, I was informed that I would have to be the fourth or fifth choice goalkeeper if I were to sign with them. And even if I agreed, my salary will be low as the club did not have sufficient fund for the signing. Eventually, I choose playing time back in Singapore.
JPF: Able to share with us more on your Manchester City days?
LL: It was a truly unforgettable training stint. I still remember the very first time when I arrived in Manchester City, Sven-Goran Eriksson was the first to come forward to shake my hand and said, “welcome to the club, and enjoy your time at Manchester City”. It was really a nice gesture from the Manager to welcome me as I am not a well-known goalkeeper. So everyday, I was training with top goalkeepers such as England’s Joe Hart, Denmark’s Kasper Schmeichel and Sweden’s Andreas Isaksson. I spent a lot of my time hanging around with former China International, Sun Jihai. He even brought me to some of the best Chinese restaurants in Manchester, haha! I also had the privilege to sit in the first team bus that traveled to Birmingham for an away game with Aston Villa! I was feeling over the moon when I was invited by Sven to join in for the 4-hours bus ride for the away game. In terms of football level, the pace of the game there was easily 5 times faster than the S.League. The way the player passed and moved were so swiftly. It was really an eye-opener for me.
JPF: You were about 25 years old when all these opportunities and fame came knocking on your door. Did you encounter any distraction or challenge, which nearly pull you down back then?
LL: Yes, certain popularity & fame did come as part of the package but I am glad that I am handling all the distractions and challenges well. Basically, I am just a person who loves to play football and I am not interested in clubbing or any nightlife activity. One of the reasons was I am very close with my family. The support that I am getting from my family really kept me on the ground. So usually, after training I would go and fetch my dad from work and spent a lot of times with my family at home. While at home, I would be either playing games or catching up with my Hong Kong drama series!
(Photo: Courtesy of Lionel Lewis)
JPF: What do you think of the current S.League as compared to your times’?
LL: During my times, we had more quality foreign players. All the top Thai players such as Kiatisuk Senamuang, Tawan Sripan, Sutee Suksomkit, Surachai Jattarapatarapong and many more dominated our League. Nowadays, it’s hard to lure in good foreign players. Go ask Alam Shah how much he had learnt from the foreign players. And no way local players can’t improve if they are to train with top quality foreign players everyday! Those foreign players will inspire and spur our local players to want to do well too. So last time, Thai players came to play in a stronger league (S.League), now they have switched to play in another stronger league which is their own Thai League. This is an indication that our League is no longer stronger as before. Seriously, we need an overhaul to the entire (S.League) system. We need to revamp the League and make it a better one in order to win back the hearts of the fans’.
JPF: What can we do to improve Singapore football?
LL: Firstly, bring in all the good quality foreign players back to the S.League again. Next, also the most important one, S.League should reinstate the S.League youth tournament again and not just the few COEs (Centre of Excellence). Every S.League should have their U14, U16 and U18 teams. And that’s how some of us, the National players came about. Basically, we need another type of S.League, but in the form of a youth level to increase the pool of footballers we have. We can also build up the club rivalry from that level onwards. In additional, there should not be such a mentality where you are playing for the Garena Young Lions and that means that you have also secured a place in the National Team. No, that should not be the case. Every spot in the National Team should be earned and not because you are from the Young Lions or even the Singapore Sports School. FAS can also look into working closely with MOE on the usage of the schools’ football fields for the youth matches in the weekend.
JPF: You seem to have a very clear, practical and realistic plan in how you have mapped out your post-career path. For the benefit of some young footballers out there, would you be able to share with us more?
LL: It is a fact that our level of football is not at a level which we can command a good and decent post-career at this point. A lot of footballers fail to realize that with a 20 years-long football career on your CV; it’s still considered no working experience to the corporate world. I have ever asked myself, if a boss were to choose between a person who had 5 years of working experience and a person with 10 years of football but no work experience, the answer is clear cut – the boss would go for that person with the 5 years “proper” experience. Once I have figured that out, I signed on with the Singapore Police Force during the peak of my football career to slowly start building up my CV. That 6 years which I have spent in the Force, I have learnt so many things such as data entry, procurement, leadership management and etc. All those years of learning in the Force are really helpful to my career. I am really glad that I have planned and embarked on such journey earlier. And lastly, as a side note, one of the reasons why I was able to excel in football during those days was because I knew that my post-career had been “secured”, hence I was able to go all out to enjoy my football!