Post Memories: Singapore take on Dagenham FC at historic match

The Singapore Lions before their match against Dagenham in April 1972.

The Singapore Lions before their match against Dagenham in April 1972. - Credit: Archant

Shivering, arms crossed and stunned by the cold.

The match programme for Dagenham vs Singapore, April 17, 1972.

The match programme for Dagenham vs Singapore, April 17, 1972. - Credit: Archant

This was how Singapore’s national football team are pictured moments before facing Dagenham Football Club one brisk spring evening, nearly 45 years ago.

Jita Singh was 23 when he crossed over to England for his country’s first – and last – international tour.

“We were a British colony and we loved British football,” Jita, now 67, explained.

“The UK was a Mecca of football so we were very excited.”

Jita, who played right back in the match on April 17, 1972, admitted the weather was “something of an experience”.

“We have so much sunshine here, so we were shivering before starting the game,” he recalled.

Most Read

A match report in the Post two days later reveals how the inexperienced national team managed to shine against the east London side despite the unaccustomed cold.

“Dagenham were made to look second best for most of the game,” the report reads, before noting how Singapore ended up losing 4-3 after surrendering a two goal lead at the Victoria Road club.

Despite their promising start in the game – part of a fortnight-long tour playing local sides across the UK – Jita, now a grandad of three, does not begrudge the British winners.

“We weren’t disappointed because it was such a good experience, playing against such players was something we could never get back home and we went back home better players,” he said.

The UK tour inspired Jita to continue in his football career, becoming the world’s youngest coach of a national side at the tender age of 29 when he guided the Singapore “Lions” to victory in the 1980 Malaysia Cup.

The national treasure fondly recalls watching British football live during his visit to England – a novelty at the time.

“We didn’t have live broadcast of matches so it was really exciting,” he said.

The football experience went hand in hand with a foray into British culture, when they spent time staying with families in Croydon.

“It really expanded our horizons,” Jita said, adding: “We came as boys but we left as men.”

The initial culture shock turned into lifelong friendships as the families went out of their way to make them feel at home.

Alongside the persisting memory of gloomy weather, the Singaporean side also struggled with the unaccustomed blandness of English food.

Their remedy was to keep a special tomato ketchup bottle by their sides at all times.

“We’re so used to rice, which was not on the regular British family menu,” said Jita. “We wanted our Asian food to taste stronger and hotter, so the only way was to sneak in the “hot” ketchup bottle to get the real spicy flavour in our food.”

Wondering how these nuggets of an international friendship come to light?

One Reynold Pereira, a Barcelona-based collector born in Singapore, acquired the match programme on eBay and shared a photo of it on social media last month. “I found out about the tour from an article in the Straits Times in 1972,” he explained.

“This is interesting because it is unlikely that they will ever play with Dagenham again.”

Dagenham-born author Neil Humphreys, who lives in Singapore, was amused by the find.

“Singapore could have played anywhere in the world but they played in Dagenham,” the 41-year-old enthused. “And it was one of the best Singaporean teams of all time.”