Someone once said that to be the man you’ve got to beat the man. Well I beat up this year 11 kid when I was in year 9 once and all I got was a week’s long detention and the title of hardest kid in school for that week. But I digress.
Our story begins on a warm but muggy June afternoon. Football in Asia is quite big. It’s not big like the European leagues, but it’s still a proud continent. Loads of money, in Qatar and the UAE, not so much in places like, oh I don’t know, Singapore where our hero is currently situated.
But despite the media coverage, money and fame that a lot of teams in Asia are blessed with, not all of them get the special treatment. The club I am referring to have just hired their new boss to a lot of silence. No fanfare, no media there covering the momentous occasion. Nothing. Perfect.
Whilst there is a grand total of 1 reporter at the clubs stadium, the clubs press officer, a 21 year old university placement student to be precise, the general feeling was that this club is destined for mediocrity. Well not on Stephen Labéque’s watch. No siree!
Before the club confirmed who the new manager is to the fans, he’s already spoken to his new players. Turns out the club have played 11 games in the league. The S league is 26 games long, with the league cup thrown in during the season for good measure. Right before the first meeting, the most important meeting of his time at Hougang, Rob Friend, his friend (conveniently) asks ‘Do they speak English here?’
‘Yes they do’
‘Are you sure? I’m sure I read somewhere Singaporean is a language’
‘It’s not, the offical language is English, but a lot of people speak Malay’
‘Well we don’t’
‘We do, we speak English. Trust me’
‘Erm, hi, Stephen, we do speak English’ A man said from the back of the dressing room
‘See, told ya. And who might you be?’ Stephen replied
‘The clubs doctor. I speak Malay as well, and for what it’s worth there is only Pablo who doesn’t speak English in the squad’
Great, Stephen thought. The star striker Pablo Rodriguez doesn’t speak English, but the rest of them do.
Hougang FC had won nothing prior to Stephen signing with them, and whilst success is at the forefront of any managers mind, staying in the S League league, the top division in Singapore was the only objective that season. The club had found themselves second bottom of the league when Stephen took over.
As part of the interview process the previous week, Stephen managed to get the club to agree to bring in Rob Friend as his new assistant. A friendly face for the rookie manager was a welcome addition early on in his career.
But for the rookie manager, there was always the feeling that making the decision to leave the comfort of home behind was the wrong one
Have I done the right thing? Will I ever make it back to Canada? What if I mess it up here will things ever work out for me?
‘Huh, you talking to me Steve?’ Rob asks
‘What? No, I wasn’t talking to anyone’
‘You were, you asked me if you’d done the right thing coming here, and if you’ll ever make it back home’
‘Did I?’ Stephen replies with a quizzical look on his face. ‘Sorry, must’ve been thinking out loud’
From the first game of his managerial career, a thumping 4-0 win over Tampines it was obvious there was a team somewhere in this squad.
Why they’d only won 3 games prior to his joining was, and would remain a mystery to the Canadian manager.
Next chapter – From Quebec to The World – Short, Sweet and Simple
Previous chapter – From Quebec to The World – The beginning