Former NTU student breaks barriers in local football league

8 Apr 2019

By Deepanraj Ganesan

News Editor

The Tampines Rovers side has started the season well under the guidance of coach Gavin Lee (in grey) as they remain unbeaten this season. PHOTOS: JOEL CHAN

Out on the pitch, Singapore Premier League (SPL) side Tampines Rovers Football Club is home to several luminaries of local football such as Daniel Bennett, 41, and Khairul Amri, 34, who together, boast more than 250 appearances for the Singapore national team.

But it is an untested 28-year-old NTU Sports Science and Management graduate that prowls the touchline and runs rule over them and the club’s footballing matters.

Gavin Lee, who graduated from NTU in 2015, has been leading the team as coach since the start of the current season. He works alongside another former Singapore national team player, Mustafic Fahrudin, who is his deputy.

What makes matters more remarkable, is that Lee is yet to attain the required certification needed to be a head coach in the SPL. It is mandatory for Singaporeans to hold the Asian Football Confederation 'A' License to take charge of SPL clubs.

The month-long ‘A’ License which will be held later this year requires a coach to have already completed his ‘B’ license and have fulfilled at least 80 hours of coaching at any level.

Nevertheless, Lee, who will attempt to earn the ‘A’ License this year, is the main man at the helm as he runs training sessions and has the final say in team tactics and preparations.

He was given the job because of the ability he showed when he was the club’s assistant coach alongside head coach Juergen Raab last year, impressing staff and players with his knowledge of the game.

Lee’s tactical prowess and reputation were also enhanced when he was Warriors Football Club’s assistant coach in their title winning season in 2014.

In fact , despite his lack of experience playing and coaching at an elite level – he has only played for NTU and the national under-14 team, and he was a youth coach at a local soccer academy – Lee has guided the Stags to an unbeaten start to the season, achieving four wins and a draw in five games.

“He is refreshing for the club because he is young and ambitious and the players have already started to like the style of play that he has introduced,” said Mustafic Fahrudin, 37, former Singapore captain and current assistant coach at Tampines.

“You can already see the players are enjoying themselves and that is a good sign. I would have loved to play under him.”

A dream come true

For Lee, being coach has been the fulfilment of a dream, one that he admits not many would have.

In school, while football fans his age might think of their football idols and visualise taking to the pitch and scoring goals, he, would instead daydream about coaching.

“I think it was mainly because of the self-awareness that I had,” said Lee.

“While I was in the national Under-14s, I had the current national team captain, Hariss (Harun) as a teammate. And he was really, really good.

“I knew I was never going to be as good as he was and I just thought perhaps I was not going to quite make it as a player if I continued. And I already had an introduction into coaching from my dad so I felt it was only natural to go down that path.”

Lee’s first foray into coaching came at the age of 16, when he decided to help his father Lawrence, during a football camp at Broadrick Secondary School, initially laying out cones for his dad. The elder Lee now coaches the Victoria Junior College’s girls’ team and Victoria School’s boys team and previously was in charge of Tampines’ U-12 side.

Tampines Rovers would mark Lee’s first head coach role, after previously serving as an assistant coach on the team for one season.

Unfazed by age difference

Lee is younger than six of his players, but that has not stopped him from commanding the respect of the Tampines squad while the strong start to the season has also helped.

In the current Tampines squad, six players are older than Lee, with Bennett as the oldest at 41, but Lee does not see it as a hindrance.

“A big part of my core value is communication, and I think as long as you can communicate effectively, age is not a factor at all,” said Lee.

“Everyone has their own values and perspectives. How each of us see the sport is like us seeing the moon from a different side of the world. It is the same object but we may have different thoughts.

“Different perspectives spark more thinking and it helps to open up our minds. As long as the team can work together well and have fun, I would feel that I am doing my job well.”

While he now takes on a serious task, to steer the Stags – as the Rovers are known to their fans, nicknamed after the stag in its logo – to their first league title since 2013, Lee’s first big break came at JSSL, one of Singapore’s largest private football academies

Initially in charge of the teenagers in various age group teams, he rose to become the academy’s general manager at just 25.

“Each year that I was in JSSL, I was getting better and better (at coaching). I could see that the players were responding to my sessions and essentially becoming better players,” said Lee.

“Those were the indicators, and not necessarily the number of wins. At the youth level, seeing the growth of your players is more important than the wins you chalk up.”

Humble beginnings

While he was at JSSL, Lee sent an email to Warriors FC coach Alex Weaver in 2014, seeking a role at the club to gain work experience.

This would kick start his coaching career at the professional level.

Subsequently, Weaver invited Lee to his coaching sessions and Lee would impress the Englishman enough to earn a spot as his assistant. The pair would go on to win the 2014 S-League title (now known as the Singapore Premier League) with the Warriors.

Weaver, currently an Under-21 coach with Swiss second division side FC Lausanne-Sport, lauded Lee for his work ethic and preparedness, values that were hard to find in coaches in the S.League back then.

“You had coaches coming in an hour before training and being unprepared. But Gavin was completely different. He was sharp, hardworking and from the moment he came in, I could see he had a very good knowledge of football and a really good understanding of the game.

“He played a very big part in what we achieved in 2014. He wanted to improve himself and I am not surprised at the progress he has made.”

After Weaver’s left Warriors in 2015, Lee left the club and took on a role as an assistant coach with Tampines in 2018.

Now, he is the main man.

Lee also credits his growth as a coach to his alma mater, NTU.

After finishing his two years of national service, he decided to take up a degree in sports science at NTU, as he thought it would help with his coaching.

“At NTU, we covered a broad spectrum of things and it allowed me to have an insight into things like nutrition, data analysis and recovery. It definitely helped with my coaching.

“When I was coaching younger kids, I could speak to parents about growth spurts and in a professional setting, like I am in now, I can help with nutrition and how much sleep a player needs and even in analysing our opponents before the games,” said Lee, who draws inspiration from watching how coaches like Eddie Howe, Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho manage their teams.

Having enjoyed a stellar start to the season, Lee is careful not to become complacent, a value he has admitted to driving into his players lately.

“I have been given the keys to the car and people would think that I have to ensure that we get to the destination,” he said.

“But the destination is not a specific target because what I really believe is that it would set a limitation. We need to enjoy the process and see what comes out of it.

“We must enjoy the ride.”