The Young Lions may not be hunting as a pack much longer. The team, established by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) in 2002 to give Under-23 players a chance to experience competitive S-League action, looks to be approaching its sell-by date, and the cubs could be released from their artificial environment and back into the wild.
After some decent performances in the early days, the team, who are sponsored by online gaming and social platform Garena, and are known as the Garena Young Lions, have been found in the bottom reaches of the league for the past decade or so.
This season has been especially dismal with no wins, 10 defeats and 33 goals conceded - the worst in the league - after 13 games
Set up to give players an opportunity to develop, it has been increasingly the case that one skill has been developed to an extreme degree.
“I am not in favour of the Young Lions because they have become used to losing,” said R. Vengadasalam, former team manager of now-defunct S.League club Woodlands Wellington.
“We need to try and instill a winning mentality in our young players, not breed a generation who lose all the time.”
The reason behind the decision to start the team was simple as he explains.
“The FAS wanted to have young players playing. There are not many teams in Singapore so there are not many opportunities for youngsters as usually it is the senior players who get to play.”
According to the outspoken Venga, who campaigned for the victorious Team LKT at the recent FAS elections, the governing body is starting to consider alternatives to try and find the best way to ensure that young players get competitive action as much as possible.
There are regional examples to look at.
Leagues in Indonesia and China have made it compulsory for every team to select at least one Under-23 player in their starting 11s. This spreads young talent around the country rather than having it all concentrated in one team.
The effectiveness of the rule has been debated in both countries.
Yet the underlying issue is less about the rule and more with the fact that many countries have neglected youth development and so do not produce enough good young players.
Robert Alberts is the head coach of league leaders PSM and believes that while the idea is good, not all tend to benefit.
“Most of the young players here are not ready for the jump and it was harmful for their development,” said the Dutchman, who also coached S.League side Home United in the late 1990s.
“Some of them collapsed playing against some big-name internationals.”
It is not just a question of whether players are ready now, but the rule is also a way to force clubs to look to their (and the country’s) long-term self-interest. If teams have to select one or two U-23 players, then they would be wise to ensure they are consistently able to produce talent that is good enough.
At the moment, especially in Singapore, there is less incentive to invest time and money in youth development when the Young Lions can take the best.
Despite the teething problems, Alberts believes the rule rewards those teams that take time to develop young players.
“The richer clubs don’t like it,” he said. “They don’t do much development and don’t want to see big name players on the bench.
“It is better for those was smaller budgets like us and better for those who plan ahead.”
In Indonesia, coaches tempted to sub out their youngsters early in the game must replace them by others of a similar age, in the first half at least. This at least gives players time to improve as long as they are helped by more experienced teammates.
In China, it is different. There have at times been farcical situations with youngsters being hauled off the pitch before anyone has broken a sweat.
Afshin Ghotbi, former coach of the Iran national team as well as Buriram United in Thailand, is now in charge of Shijiazhuang Everbright, a team challenging for promotion to the Chinese Super League.
Ghotbi is not a fan of the habit that some coaches have of swapping youngsters for older stars youngster early in games.
“Nobody wins in that situation,” he said.
“The young players obviously lose confidence and the team uses one of their subs.”
If it were to be introduced in Singapore, then Ghotbi advises that clubs are given time to adapt - unlike in China where the rule was announced just a month before the start of the new season.
The well-travelled coach believes however that sooner or later, the plunge has to be taken whether clubs and players are ready or not.
Venga agrees. “Whether there are enough players who are good enough at the moment is not important,” he said.
“You have to throw them into the swimming pool and let them swim. They may struggle at first but after time in the right clubs, they will soon be good enough.”
More would be needed however, according to Ghotbi, who argues that a rule in isolation would not change that much.
“The idea is a good one overall but you have to look at all areas of youth development and work towards producing more players who are good enough to play at a young age.”
Still, while rules can be changed quickly, changing a culture takes time.
It is notable that in many parts of Asia, U-23 players are considered young. This is less the case in Europe where most would expect to have considerable professional experience and a long youth career under their belts.
Giving coaches more security would also encourage them to invest in youth.
“In many places in Asia, if you don’t win for five games, you are fired,” said Ghotbi.
“If you want coaches to think beyond winning the next game, you need to have the right environment.”
A compulsory U-23 rule is no guarantee of success but as part of a general long-term strategy, it can be effective in not just forcing clubs to field youngsters, but rewarding those that take youth development more seriously.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
TODAY Sports’ guest columnist John Duerden has been based in Asia for almost 20 years and covers the continental football scene for The New York Times, BBC Radio, The Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer magazine