The 19-year-old Singapore Polytechnic student only started playing 11-a-side football when he was in secondary school.
While working as a part-time retail assistant at NTUC after his O-Levels at the end of 2017, Wayne Chew received a text message on his mobile phone.
The text message, which came from his football coach at Kent Ridge Secondary School Mohamad Faiz, read: “Wayne, are you ready?”
Wayne didn’t think much about it then. Faiz subsequently asked Wayne to attend a trial for the Geylang International Under-19 team.
“Since there was this opportunity, I gave it a good thought and decided to give it a shot,” Wayne told Youthopia of his thought process then.
The trial was a successful one and more than two years on, Wayne proved ready.
The Geylang International goalkeeper made his professional debut on Nov 17 against Tanjong Pagar United in the Singapore Premier League, after being selected by head coach Noor Ali the day before the match.
The selection caught him by surprise, explained Wayne.
“Honestly I was shocked at that point and it was a rollercoaster of emotions for me, but I felt ready for the challenge,” he admitted.
“As a child, you always dream of making your debut at the highest level and I certainly didn’t see it coming this way.”
Noor explained that he chose to give Wayne a chance after witnessing the sheer hard work the young goalkeeper puts into training.
“He works very hard during training and has really stepped up this year. It is definitely nice to see young players coming up and grow into the Geylang system,” the former Singapore international said.
“At the same time, they need to realise the importance of balancing qualifications with football. It is equally important as it is something for them to fall back on when they eventually stop football or retire.”
It’s been a baptism of fire for Wayne in his football journey. Unlike most of his peers, Wayne did not go down the typical route of the Centre Of Excellence (COE) system or represent the Young Lions.
He only began playing organised 11-a-side football in earnest while in secondary school.
“Comparing the path that my team-mates had taken, it’s really different,” he said.
“Most of them come from either playing at the clubs’ Under-14 or Under-15 team or from schools where football is really good there. Kent Ridge could never ever match up to powerhouses like Hong Kah or Queensway in the school sporting scene.
“But I learnt a lot during my time there and that’s how I started.”
After being signed by the club following the trial he attended, Wayne represented Geylang’s youth teams for two years in the COE competitions organised by the Football Association of Singapore.
While playing for the club, he was also studying for a Diploma in Infocomm Security at Singapore Polytechnic (SP), for whom he also represented in inter-varsity competitions.
During this time, Wayne trained with the first-team goalkeepers at Geylang and he attributed his development as a player to that.
“I had little or no experience playing in club football whatsoever, but in 2018 I actually trained with the SPL team a lot as we didn’t have a goalkeeper coach for the COE team,” he said.
“Training with the likes of Zainol (Gulam) and Jasper (Chan), it was a whole different experience. I’d say 2018 was rough but a year that I enjoyed myself and learned a lot.”
Fast forward to 2020, he lived the dream of many footballers. Wayne described the entire experience as “surreal”, even though he was replaced at half-time.
“When I was waiting in the tunnel, it just hit me that this is going to be a big moment in my life,” he recalled.
“It struck me the moment I stepped out onto the field… I thought to myself, ‘hey, I’m actually playing professional football and my friends and family will be able to watch me through the live broadcast’.
“It took me about 10 minutes to settle in but my coaches advised me to treat this like a training game and I felt more comfortable thereafter.”
His head coach at SP, Razif Ariff, was effusive in his praise for Wayne.
“On the pitch, Wayne is someone who grasps ideas quickly and this helps in giving the team assurance at the back,” he noted.
“He understands what needs to be done and he is someone who has worked very hard. Off the pitch, he is like a brother to his teammates and has helped the new players settle into the team.
“He certainly has the attributes to become a leader.”
Off the pitch, there was the matter of convincing his parents to allow him to pursue the sport too. Prior to football, Wayne had taken up taekwondo and volleyball as co-curricular activities in primary school.
“My mother was especially skeptical when I told her I wanted to take up football as my CCA in secondary school,” said Wayne.
“Most parents would question their son’s decision to take up a contact sport as there was that chance of getting injured and what not. I eventually managed to convince her, saying that this was just a hobby.
“To go so far and make my SPL debut, it was something we didn’t really expect. I would say I’m fortunate because my parents do not stop me and say things like ‘You need to stop playing football for this period of time to focus on exams.’”
Looking back, Wayne had a number of people to thank. He singled out Zainol and praised him for playing the “biggest role”.
“He has always been there throughout my time at Geylang career. I’d like to say a big thank you to him for everything he has done for me. He’s not only a role model, but also a very approachable guy off the pitch,” said Wayne.
“I’d also like to thank my secondary school coaches for their faith in me, especially coach Faiz who arranged the Geylang trial. I was never the most talented player out there, but I was extremely lucky to have coaches like them who guided me along the way.”
When he graduates from SP in April next year, Wayne will have to go through the rite of passage for Singaporean males and enlist for National Service (NS).
It is also why Wayne is not looking too far ahead yet, preferring to enjoy whatever that is coming his way now.
“Seeing how this year turned out, I realise you can never be too certain of the future,” he said.
“I’d have to first complete my NS before I think about anything else. I actually plan to pursue a degree in the cybersecurity field as well but who knows what the future may hold?
“I might even take the full-time footballing route once I’m done so it’s really hard to be certain for now.”
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