Why he was called Geylang's godfather

SINGAPORE - His phone rang at least six times when we were walking down the tunnel towards London's Wembley Stadium in May 1999.

It was two hours before the kick-off of the Manchester United-Newcastle FA Cup final. And while English fans raved about names such as Roy Keane, David Beckham and Alan Shearer, Patrick Ang was content talking about Kadir Yahaya and Malek Awab.

Ang's conversations were in reply to long-distance calls from Geylang United officials reporting to him about the day's goings-on and the club's result of the previous night's S-League match.

That has been the norm for the often-travelling Eagles chairman, who as the club's main fixture for 26 years had always kept Geylang close to his heart, their staff and players always on his mind.

Ang, 61, who on Friday announced his retirement as chairman of the club, was just as passionate and often emotional about Geylang in a farewell interview yesterday.

The former inter-club squash player said: "I was running the Evergreen soccer team in the Inter-Shipping tournament when friends, especially former national player Samsuddin Rahmat, coaxed me into becoming a Geylang (International) official in 1986.

"I agreed, but I never imagined that I would stay so long in soccer. And as I moved up the ranks at the club as manager, vice-president, president and eventually chairman, it became difficult for me sever the relationship.

"In fact, 12 years ago, I had signalled my intention to leave. But I wasn't going to leave the club in the lurch. I identified a series of successors, such as businessman Derek Ng, lawyer Eric Chew and shipping general manager Peter Lim, but all declined to take over for one reason or other.

"Now that we have found an able successor in former national player Leong Kok Fann, I thought it best that I make way for new blood, which I believe is the way for local soccer. Enough of 'dinosaurs'."

Ang was disillusioned with teaching before he became a shipping clerk at Straits Transportation Pte Ltd.

Then he rose through the ranks to his current position as chairman of Evergreen Shipping (Singapore) and Eva Air (Singapore), his high status allowing him to open doors for sponsorships to run Geylang United.

In fact, the business acumen that he displayed in running shipping and airline operations enabled him to keep Geylang afloat financially all through his stewardship - even in periods of economic gloom.

It is this ability about him that is often discussed in local sports circles, for running soccer clubs in Singapore is a monumental and thankless task that only a special breed can do.

"Yes, we get a subsidy from the Football Association of Singapore and there is prize-money, but these alone cannot get a club functioning well," he explained.

"I've helped the club gain main and co-sponsors, I organise an annual golf tournament which brings in at least $160,000 and our fruit machines bring in just over a million dollars every year."

But the affable Ang was reluctant to discuss how much money came out of his own pocket - a praiseworthy act that earned him the nickname "Geylang's Godfather" - to help the club's coffers.

When probed, he said: "Put it this way, if you want to be a chairman of a soccer club in Singapore, be prepared to cough up something from your own pocket."

And when pushed further, he would only say: "Yes, there was one year when I came up with a six-figure sum."

There were many highpoints for the engaging Ang.

Top of the list was Geylang's triumph in the inaugural S-League in 1996, when his ambitious move to recruit Iranian World Cup players Mohamed Khakpour and Hamidreza Estili paid off with several big wins.

Another was the Lions' 1994 Malaysia Cup triumph when he was the team's general manager.

There were also lowpoints that gave him heartbreak, and drove him to several reality checks.

His biggest peeve is the structural problem in local soccer adminstration where clubs invest heavily in player development and eventually lose them to clubs like Home United, SAFFC and Courts Young Lions when they are in the late teens.

He also thinks that match-fixing remains a thorn in the S-League, although he concedes that the FAS and related authorities keep strict vigilance.

And Ang is one official who is firm yet fair.

He expressed disgust when he talked about the Singapore Cup in 2001 when, just days after Geylang won the league title, they were hammered 8-0 by Home United in the Singapore Cup.

He said: "My players asked me what the win bonus was for the league win. I told them I would only reveal it after the Cup final.

"Angry with that decision, the players gave a listless showing in the Cup final."

But where Ang found great joy was the tremendous experience of mixing with the heartlanders and high-profile personalities, and in making so many new friends.

Among the close friends was former England manager Bobby Robson, who played a round of golf with Ang, soccer presenter John Dykes and I some 10 years ago at Tanah Merah's Garden course.

Also, former Pahang coach and Manchester United talent scout Mick Brown, who provided Ang and I tickets for the 1999 English FA Cup and the 1999 Champions League final.

"But best of all, it is seeing the young kids you have helped turning into top players," he said. "A good example is Zak Whitbread, whom I saw develop from a pre-teen at Geylang into a top-rate player for Liverpool, and now Norwich City.

"As I relax now, I can look back and say, that was my boy once."

And for all Ang has done for Singapore soccer, we can say: "Thanks man, you'll be sorely missed'."

This article was first published in The New Paper.