SINGAPORE – Gavin Lee has been here before. Six years ago, he was assistant to then-coach Alex Weaver and watched as their Warriors FC side captured an unlikely S-League title despite starting the final round in second spot behind Brunei DPMM.
On Saturday (Dec 5), Lee, now the head coach, will be aiming to repeat history as his Tampines Rovers team seek to overhaul Singapore Premier League (SPL) leaders Albirex Niigata in the last game of the season.
The Stags trail Albirex by a point and need to not only beat Geylang International but hope the Japanese club drop points against Hougang United.
In 2014, the only way Lee and the Warriors, who were playing Albirex, could lift the S-League trophy was if they bettered DPMM’s result against Tampines.
Both contenders were level on 50 points but the Bruneians had a vastly superior goal difference. Yet they lost 2-1 to Tampines while the Warriors prevailed 1-0 to complete a stunning turnaround.
Recalling what it was like going into the game, Lee said: “With Alex, the approach to the game was similar every other game – we went in with the full intention to win it and we focused on that and what we could control.”
That October night in 2014 still holds important lessons for Lee. He said: “We definitely remember it, even before the current situation.
“We’ve got a bunch of players who aren’t going to give up until the final whistle and after games like against the Young Lions (Tampines conceded first but won 3-1) in November, it’ll be the same this coming Saturday.
“As long as there’s hope, you can expect the best from us.”
The Stags will also be aided by support from the stands. There will be 200 fans inside Our Tampines Hub, the first time spectators are allowed into stadiums since March 14 when games were held behind closed doors due to the Covid-19 crisis.
But Tampines defender Daniel Bennett, who was part of Warriors title-winning squad in 2014, is not drawing parallels between the two seasons.
He said: “I wouldn’t really compare it. The way we played that time, we were probably not the top team and not expected to win.
“This time, I think we should’ve won it. It’s a little bit disappointing, but going into this last game, we are all very relaxed because there’s no pressure on us.”
Tampines’ last league crown was in 2013 and Lee’s work there has established the 30-year-old as one of the country’s brightest coaching prospects.
He joined Tampines in 2018 as assistant to Jurgen Raab and succeeded the German last year. In his first season as head coach, Lee won the Singapore Cup and guided Tampines to second in the SPL and their AFC Cup group, narrowly missing out on qualifying for the group stages.
Lee’s coaching career began as a teenager when he helped his father Lawrence, also a football coach, during a football camp. He then joined private football academy JSSL Singapore at 18, before becoming its general manager in 2016.
He paid tribute to his various mentors like Weaver, Tampines chairman Desmond Ong, JSSL Singapore founder Harvey Davis and veteran coach Kadir Yahaya and said the most important lesson he has learnt as a coach has been to let players enjoy their football.
Bennett, 42, can attest to that. He said: “I know when Gavin started a lot of people questioned whether he was old enough and a lot of people question whether I’m young enough, but in the end, age doesn’t really matter.
“I think everyone can see that when we play well, we are one of the most attractive teams to watch in the league and that’s down to Gavin and his hard work; he eats, sleeps, breathes football. He’s one of the best managers I’ve worked under.”