Being one of the biggest Auskick centers in the world requires meticulous planning, communication and coaching. Throw COVID-19 into the mix and you have got another story altogether. While the Singapore Sharks were flying in 2019, their 2020 season is a story of courage and persistence, and a lot of hard work by a passionate team of administrators, coaches and players.

In 2019 the Club had experienced a record-breaking season in terms of participation, with over 460 players signed up, driven by an aggressive promotion for girls of all ages, which saw their participation explode from less than 20 players in 2018 to 144 in 2019.

In January this year, the Sharks were looking forward to consolidating on that success and had big plans for the new season – the introduction of a new Under 15 age group for both boys and girls, and the introduction of a first-ever lightning premiership competition for girls. 320 players had already signed up, and were gearing up for the annual Australia Day BBQ promotion, which usually sees an influx of new recruits before the season commencement post-Chinese New Year in February.

Female footy continues to boom with the Sharks.

However, all of that came to a grinding halt when COVID-19 meant that they needed to cancel the BBQ and defer their planned start to the season. As the months went by, Singapore imposed progressively more stringent restrictions, the economy slowed, and the Sharks lost many Australian expat families and players. To keep the community engaged, they reached out via social media and ran a series of competitions, such as asking kids to submit a video of themselves doing something spectacular with a footy around the house or garden.

By June a glimmer of hope arrived, with the first loosening of restrictions as Singapore began to bring the pandemic under control. However, high hopes for a restart to the season in a modified form were dashed when it became clear that their long-time venue hosts, the Australian International School (AIS), were unable to accommodate participants that were not already AIS school students, as a result of the restrictions international schools were forced to abide by. With nearly half of the Sharks playing base not AIS students, they were forced to consider an alternative venue. Finding a new venue at short notice, able to be block booked for 8 hours every week, and large enough to accommodate well over 300 players split into groups of 5 (the maximum group size allowed under Singapore’s COVID-19 restrictions) was not going to be a simple task in land-scarce Singapore. The easiest thing to do would have been to simply give up and call the season off.

However, Club Treasurer and Senior Team captain, Mark Houghton, was having none of that, and hit the phones calling venues all over the island. Mark’s persistence paid off, an alternative venue suitable for requirements was found, and the Sharks announced that footy would be back by the beginning of August.

Now the real work started. The committee had to prepare a 10-page COVID-safe operating plan that had to be submitted to the new venue and to be made available to the government authorities. This plan covered multiple requirements: temperature checks for players & volunteers, a mandatory QR-code check-in system, splitting of the players into groups of 5 with one volunteer coach each, demarcation of zones on the playing field, modified rules (incidental contact only), holding areas for players waiting to enter the field, the deployment of “social distancing ambassadors” to ensure players did not inter-mingle outside of their designated groups, and sanitization of the footballs themselves at the end of each session. Even usually straight-forward events like the distribution of playing kit became a challenge in this environment as they could not afford to be seen to be congregating in groups larger than 5. In the early part of the season, parents were not allowed to watch their children, and were forced to operate on a drop-off/pick-up principle (something that can be quite a challenge when dealing with age groups as young as Under 5s). Overhanging all of this was the ever-present threat of government inspectors that had the power to close the whole operation down if the Sharks infringed the rules.

The first week in August was an incredibly stressful event, every committee member was assigned a specific role, and were backed up by an army of approximately 100 volunteer coaches and check-in staff. The Sharks obviously did something right, though – the children loved having a kick for the first time in months and the feedback from parents was overwhelmingly positive. Word spread quickly, and without many other options for organized sport in Singapore at this time, they experienced a surge of new recruits across all age groups – rebuilding numbers back to 409 players by the end of our rescheduled season which ran nearly all the way to Christmas!

11-year-old Issac Wellington, who returned to Australia and was selected to join the Sydney Swans academy, thoroughly enjoyed getting back to having a kick.

“Since moving back to Australia I have had a great footy season and have been invited to join the Sydney Swans academy! I would like to thank the Singapore Sharks for everything you have taught me as a footballer. To all the volunteers, you are all amazing people!”, Issac said.

Issac getting a kick for the Sharks, before pulling on a Swans jumper in 2021.

An unexpected benefit of the limitation of groups of 5, was that this provided the ability to keep boys and girls in separate groups, whilst still sharing the same field at the same time. This proved a good aid to girls’ development, with close attention from coaches and a comfortable environment. The popularity of this was borne out by the fact that by the end of the season they had 102 female players registered with the Club.

11-year-old Charli and 9-year-old Matilda Patterson certainly thrived under the opportunity the Sharks provided them.

“We love playing with the Singapore Sharks because being a part of this great club makes us feel close to home. We love how supportive and encouraging the coaches are and we both love to kick a goal. We think it’s great how they were able to keep this club going through COVID”, they said.

From a Shark to the AFLW… let’s hope so!

During the season they managed to put on 13 weeks of standard training for age groups from 5 years old through to seniors (as old as 55!).

They then played 4 weeks of ‘Lightning Rounds’ for age groups Under 9s through to Under 15s. With so many small teams of 5, they were unable to stage sufficient games to allow each team to play each other, so dispensed with ladders & finals for this season. This didn’t bother the kids – they played every match like their lives depended on it!

Meantime the Senior Team trained every Monday under lights in combination with the Under 15s. It was an eclectic combination of talented teenage boys and girls, parents & friends of the Club with wildly differing standards of footy prowess – and culminated in the annual Carmody Cup where the teenagers took on and beat the adults for the first time in the history of the Club.

Head Coach Scott Murphy was influential in setting standards and implementing strategies to cope with the struggles of 2020. Given this season was one like no other, they still managed to put their player development first.

“Our goal has always been to run a program that develops the whole player with the idea that they can transition seamlessly into any program or league in Australia. 2020 brought unprecedented circumstances, however we were able to design training formats that were more inclusive and provided greater structure & support to individuals on skills. With a little hope that we can return to the old ‘normal’ in the near future, there are important takeaways that we have learned as a club that we will continue to utilize moving forward”, Murphy said.

A happy Sharks family smiling after their efforts in 2020.

2021 shapes as yet another challenge for the Sharks. They still don’t have much certainty around their venue, as whilst Singapore has the pandemic under control for now, social distancing restrictions are kept very tight, and thus there has not been any significant change in the regulations. Their current venue is effectively on loan from the Singapore Junior Soccer League, who are choosing not to use it while the restrictions on group sizes preclude them from playing full-size matches. However, if the Sharks could navigate its way through all the challenges that 2020 put in front of it – then 2021 should be a cinch.

Singapore Sharks President, Alex O’Shea, was glowing in his praise for how the club handled the year, stating, “I am incredibly proud of what the Singapore Sharks have achieved in 2020, in the face of the biggest challenges the Club has ever faced. A Club this large does not run itself, and for that I need to highlight the incredible work that our Committee, Coaches and volunteer parents have put in to keep this show on the road during 2020.”

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