Friday evening’s StarHub Plate Final at Jalan Besar Stadium was a low-key affair that nevertheless attracted a crowd in excess of a thousand, who saw Balestier Khalsa earn their prize with a last-minute winner against the Courts Young Lions.
While the remarkably heavy StarHub League Cup trophy will be contested one evening later, the Plate, despite being somewhat lightweight, still managed to serve up some decent fare for those who ventured down.
Both clubs fielded what could be seen as their strongest lineups, with only the injured trio of Goran Subara, Anantha Rajan and Ridwan Jamil reducing the potency of the Balestier side.
The Young Lions similarly had to do without the likes of Haniff Ja’ffar Sadique and Aqhari Abdullah going into this match, but their starting eleven looked as strong as it has done at any time lately.
Their coach Robin Chitrakar had emphasised the need not to concede an early goal, which his team managed, but they were found wanting at the other end of the 90 minutes when one centre-field slip-up allowed the Tigers to snatch the only goal of the game.
“We didn’t concede early, but we made one fatal mistake that cost us as well, as missing many excellent chances,” he said in his post-match analysis.
“But the performance of my team was very good, and I have few complaints.”
It was as a result of a relatively early Balestier offensive that the Young Lions escaped the ignominy of another early goal being conceded.
But the Tigers were the ones who suffered the most, not merely from failing to score when it would have mattered a great deal, but in losing their charismatic captain Paul Cunningham to a head wound that ended his involvement in the event.
As is the New Zealander’s custom, he came up for a free kick on 25 minutes, won on the left and floated over by Tengku Mushadad.
The tall skipper won the aerial challenge, and it might have beaten Young Lions goalkeeper Syazwan Buhari, had he not managed to push the ball onto the right-hand upright, from where it was scrambled away to safety.
Meanwhile it seemed that the Balestier captain had come off second best, and they had to reshuffle to accommodate Cunningham’s absence for the remainder of the game.
“Paul is a strong boy and he wanted to go back on,” said their assistant coach Kevin Wee, standing in for Darren Stewart at the post-match interview.
“But the coaching staff told him it was not in his best interests to continue, and that he should try and make a full recovery before our next S.League match at the end of the month.
“It was not concussion, or he would have been off to hospital. But it was a nasty head injury.”
Balestier sent on defender Yusiskandar Yusop on 32 minutes after deciding their captain, even with some heavy bandaging, would not be fit to resume.
That substitution did their cause no harm, however, as the backline held firm against a redoubtable strikeforce that included Jonathan Toto, Benjamin Lee, Sherif El-Masri and Shahfiq Ghani, with Faris Ramli joining in as El-Masri’s replacement for the final 15 minutes.
The Young Lions had their chances, but Balestier were not always occupied in merely defying their rivals with a blanket defence, instead venturing forward often to pose a threat of their own.
The first serious chance, in fact, fell to the Tigers, with a Ruhaizad Ismail cross in the eighth minute setting up Kim Min Ho, but when Syazwan managed to block the firm shot, Zulkiffli Hassim could only fire narrowly wide on the follow-up.
El Masri’s shot for the hosts on 19 minutes was blocked by his own teammate Toto, while Daniel Ong almost fumbled a powerful shot from 35 yards by Zulfahmi Arifin soon after, but the custodian reclaimed possession quickly before a lurking forward could pounce.
After the Cunningham injury the Tigers maintained their solid work rate and gave as good as they got.
A ball chipped over the defence by Park Kang Jin on 34 minutes gave Kim a chance to beat Syazwan, but his ensuing effort cleared the bar from 15 yards out.
Another screamer from Zulfahmi, who is making a habit of long-range shots that trouble opposition goalkeepers, then forced Ong into making a brilliant last-gasp save, much to the relief of the Balestier defenders.
A close call for the Young Lions ended the first half when Kim dragged his shot across the face of goal in stoppage time after Zdravko Dragicevic had nodded on a Park free kick.
Balestier looked keen to get things restarted as they were the first out onto the pitch, ahead of the referees, but they soon found themselves under pressure as Toto connected with a header from a corner only four minutes after the resumption.
The Frenchman headed the ball into the ground, however, before it bounced just over the bar.
Zulkiffli made a strong run for Balestier just after the hour mark, but could only find the side-netting when he might have been expected to do better.
Toto was involved in two more attacks that could have spelt danger for Balestier, but after intercepting a stray pass on 64 minutes, he put his shot low across the face of goal.
The former Etoile FC forward then pushed a shot straight at Ong four minutes later, when more power and better direction was probably called for.
Kim was beginning to impose himself on proceedings more and more in the meantime, though, and the player, limited to Prime League appearances due to the strength of the foreign quartet in the senior squad, got into a good position on 84 minutes after a searching run, only to fire just wide.
There was no such waywardness from him as the final minute loomed, however, after Young Lions fullback Faritz Abdul Hameed had lost the ball in midfield to Park, who was putting more and more bite into his tackles as the game wore on.
Park fed substitute Hamqaamal Shah on the left, and his crisp cross was kept well away from Syazwan’s clutches, allowing Kim to steer the ball home with his first touch from ten yards out.
Having earned themselves the win inside 90 minutes, the Balestier players accepted their medals and Cunningham, swathed in bandages, held the Plate aloft.
None of the management or officials walked up to receive medals on this occasion, preferring to keep things low key, no doubt.
It was noticeable that celebrations were fairly muted in general, and Stewart in particular disappeared down the tunnel as soon as he had heard the final whistle, leaving his trusted assistant Wee to field questions on his behalf.
“Just as the coach has said before, we saw this game as excellent preparation for our remaining S.League matches,” said Wee.
“The players decided to hand the winning prize money of S$5,000 back to the club as a token of their appreciation for what the club has done for them this season. It is their way of saying ‘thank you’ to the management.”
The newly-minted StarHub Plate will now take pride of place in the Tigers’ trophy cabinet, where it may soon enough be joined by silverware won by the club’s Prime League team, coached by none other than Wee himself.
They stand an imposing ten points over the nearest challengers with nine games to go in that competition, and even if people may be discounting the senior team’s chances of lifting the Great Eastern-YEO’S S.League trophy, that is one championship they are still endeavouring to claim this season to complete a remarkable treble.
Article taken from sleague.com, written by Paul Green
CYL Line up:
Syazwan Buhari, Faritz Abdul Hameed, Sirina Camara, Sheikh Abdul Hadi, Fazli Ayob, Hafiz Abu Sujad, Zulfahmi Arifin, Benjamin Lee (Nazrul Nazari 82″), Shahfiq Ghani, Sherif El-Masri (Faris Ramli 74″), Jonathan Toto