Written by: Kenneth Tan
Hougang Stadium holds a special place in Ashrul’s heart.
Just four years ago, he sat in the stands as the Hougang faithful chanted the name of his father Amin, a coach deeply admired and respected.
Come 2018, it will be Ashrul’s turn to take to the pitch and while Amin may not be in the dugout, his son is ready to live up to his late dad’s legacy
Come 2018, it will be Ashrul’s turn to take to the pitch and while Amin may not be in the dugout, his son is determined to pick up where he left off.
“I came down for every game and even sat with the HOOLS (Hougang United’s unofficial supporters’ club),” Ashrul told FourFourTwo. “Hearing them singing and chanting my dad’s name made me feel so blessed. And the players often told me during training that ‘your dad is not just a coach, but also like a father figure’.”
Ashrul had even trained with the Cheetahs and featured in friendly matches, but did not sign official terms due to National Service (NS) commitments.
“It was sad not to play (a competitive game) for the team, but I told myself ‘at least I get to train under my dad. I had a great bond with the players and the management; they were so nice and so welcoming.
Amin passed on at the age of 48 in January 2017 after a five-year battle with fourth-stage colon cancer, leaving behind his wife, his daughter as well as Ashrul.
The former Singapore international was first diagnosed with cancer in late 2012, and had fought his way back to good health. But, doctors discovered growths in Amin’s stomach and kidney in 2014.
After stepping down from his head coach role, Amin’s condition further deteriorated in 2016 before he passed on.
By then, Ashrul had become a first-team regular for Balestier Khalsa in the S.League, and Amin’s death was tough to take for the 23-year-old, as his father never had the chance to watch him play regularly at a professional level.
“His death had a big impact on me because he always came down to support my games since I was young, analysing how the team and I play,” shared Ashrul, who regularly accompanied Amin to chemotherapy sessions and went on a trip with him to Mecca in Saudi Arabia less than two months before his death.
“After we got home, we would talk about the game during dinner – to the extent that we debated. Now I feel sad that I can’t have that someone whom I can share all my issues with and give me advice on how to improve.”
Ashrul himself had to battle with leukaemia when he was just nine years old, and fought through it with the help of his family.
“I don’t remember that much as I was still small then, all I remember was the pain as I had to go back and forth to the hospital for check-ups,” he said. “I was really weak.
“My family was always finding ways to help me recover fast and my dad was the one who’s always by my side, motivating me to be strong and never to give up. It was a tough journey for me, but fortunately they were around to help me. Thanks be to God that I’m fully cured and healthy now.
“Watching my dad fight the battle that I had really made me tear up because we both could feel how hard it was to be mentally strong when your body keeps failing on you.”
Amin used to tell Ashrul about his happiness at being able to lead the Cheetahs, and this in turn left an indelible mark on his son.
“When he was still head coach, he always told me about the excitement at (being able to) lead this team,” he said. “Sometimes results don’t go his way and people might say it’s his fault, but he took it on his chin.
“He said the belief and trust were what made it so flexible for him to do his job there and that it was one of the best teams which he had coached. Also, they have the best fans in the league in the form of the HOOLS.
“He once told me before ‘let’s say if you can pick any club, it’s best you go Hougang’. What better place to go than one where you are comfortable with and can find happiness in?”
This factored in Ashrul’s decision making when he was released from Balestier after the 2017 season. A call from Hougang vice-chairman cum honorary treasurer Jeffrey Sim to invite Ashrul to his wedding paved the way for him to join the Cheetahs.
“I spoke to Jeffrey whom I knew from training with the club in 2014 and we naturally spoke about football,” he shared. “I told him I have yet to commit to any clubs (for 2018) so he asked if I’m interested to come to Hougang.
“Of course, I was more than happy to come. I had a good chat with coach Philippe (Aw) and things moved quickly from there.
“For me, it’s the club’s ambition that attracted me the most and I feel this is where I can really improve myself. Coach Philippe also has the same mindset, where he wants to push his players into the (Singapore) national team or even play abroad anywhere.
“All these positive things, adding to the fact that my dad was head coach there, convinced me that this is the right club for me.”
Ashrul, who made his breakthrough via the H-TWO-O/ITE Ultimate Dream Team programme in 2012, is hopeful that this move propels his career to another level after a mixed first two seasons in the S.League.
The 23-year-old represented Singapore at various age group levels from Under-16 to Under-21 before making his professional bow with Garena Young Lions in 2016.
His debut season was a stop-start one due to injuries, while he lost his first-team spot with Balestier in the second half of 2017.
“Looking back, things could have gone better – especially at Young Lions,” reflected the 1.81m defender. “When I went to Balestier, I still had a positive mindset and I was doing so well under coach Marko (Kraljevic) who trusted me.
“But I got injured halfway through the season and it was hard for me to get back into the team. I can’t complain much because the other defenders were doing so well.
“All I can say is that I’m really looking forward to this coming season with Hougang after chatting with coach Philippe and I can’t wait to get started.
“I want to play regularly for the club and achieve my next target of reaching the national team. My dad and my uncle Nazri Nasir both played for Singapore, so it’ll be great if I can achieve the same.”
As he takes to the field this year, Ashrul will be looking to put up his best displays to live up to his late dad’s legacy in the North East.
“Honestly I still miss him a lot every day. With him no longer around, I know I have to motivate myself and push as hard as I can,” said the new Hougang no. 4. “I know that’s what he wants me to do, which is to keep working hard like how he reminded me since I was a kid.
“(But) at the end of the day, I want people to know me not just because I’m Amin’s son. I want to be recognised for what I am and the hard work that I put in.”