The two years he spent as an officer with the Naval Diving Unit has helped Mukundan learn to deal with challenges.
It’s always hard to come back to a sport after spending years away from it, especially for professional athletes.
But for Mukundan Maran, the 23-year-old Hougang United goalkeeper, it’s like he hadn’t been away for that long. He’s played in four matches so far, starring in the Cheetahs’ upset win over Lion City Sailors and Hougang United, and helped his team rise to second in the league table.
Prior to signing for Hougang earlier this year, the 1.87m-tall custodian spent two years away for football as he – you guessed it – enlisted for national service.
For many athletes in Singapore, National Service (NS) may be a dreadful thing, as that could mean losing out on two years of development. It’s an issue that has been brought up time and again.
But Mukundan Maran thoroughly enjoyed his NS years even though he was not able to play football at all.
“Of course it was sad to put my football aside for NS, but upon reflecting – to enter the Naval Diving Unit (NDU) is a rare opportunity which I wanted to take full grasp of,” Mukundan, who served as an officer in the NDU, said.
“Besides, I knew that it will be physically very demanding in this unit so I decided to just put my full focus into it before thinking of anything else.”
Still, one wonders what could have been, as the goalkeeper had shown tremendous promise prior to his enlistment.
Breaking onto the scene with Warriors FC in 2017, Mukundan impressed many with his ability to stop shots and bravery. He was also part of the Warriors FC under-21 side that lifted the FA Cup trophy that year too.
Under the tutelage of head coach and club legend Mirko Grabovac, as well as goalkeeper coach Lee Bee Seng, Mukudan made his mark in 2018. He secured his first professional contract and made 18 senior appearances. The 1.87m-tall custodian also kept five clean sheets and made plenty of wonder saves.
“It was a great year in football for me. I wasn’t the outright first choice goalkeeper – that came with a lot of training and certain things going my way,” he said.
Aside from his professional feats, Mukundan was also juggling school commitments. Apart from studying for his A-Levels in 2018, Mukundan also captained Millennia Institute’s (MI) football team to a top-four finish in the A Division. There were also occasions when he had to play matches every other day. He also had to lug his textbooks around to study before training sessions with Warriors and burn the midnight oil to finish his school work.
The hectic schedule did nothing to deter him from succeeding academically as he became the Valedictorian of his MI cohort. He credits his achievements to his teacher-in-charge Mr Shawn Ang, who he described as a ‘very impactful individual’, as well as his supportive parents.
“Mr Ang was very understanding and supportive,” he said. “Whenever I needed to prioritise club training over school stuff, he will allow me to do so while making sure I keep up with the lessons – he’s always checking in to see if I’m coping and offering to help me out in areas that I needed to shore up. That really helped me a lot.
“My parents are very supportive of my studies and football. They knew I have this passion to play football in a professional capacity, while making sure I don’t neglect the academics. My dad was always driving me to and fro after training and matches every day – he still does it now, watching how I play and encouraging me. The supportive element at home really drove me on during this tough period.”
Mukundan had no regrets on his decision to join the NDU – even if that meant that he was not able to train and play football. Most footballers would either sign for Young Lions while serving the nation, or play for the sports association of either the army or the police – depending on where they serve.
During the two years away from football, he was able to pick up valuable leadership skills and become a more disciplined person courtesy of a 38-week long period in the Officer Cadet School (OCS). The officer cadets have to go through a vigorous Officer Cadet Course (OCC) in which they are put through exercises to train their resilience and adaptability to make decisions under intense pressure.
Interestingly it was midway through his OCC when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. He and several others had embarked on a four-week Midshipman Sea Training Deployment (MSTD) in late January last year when the situation worsened. As such, the ship that he was on sailed and trained in the South China Sea instead of docking at overseas ports as originally planned.
That experience also taught him how to deal with sudden and unexpected situations.
“At that point of time, we were all quite unclear of what’s going on. Everyone was just happening on the spot and it’s all very sudden,” he recalled vividly.
“There were times when we were supposed to go certain countries but were then told to make a U-turn suddenly. It was really eventful – given that we were out in the open sea.
“Getting communication with our parents was the toughest part – we were only allowed to use our phones at certain timings, while reception wasn’t always the clearest when you’re out there. As such, me and the rest of the cadets spent a lot of time talking and learning more about each other. That bonded us closer, which was in a way a blessing in disguise.”
Of course there was some catching up to do as he returned to professional football. His only exposure to the sport while serving NS was the occasional weekend futsal kickabout sessions with his friends.
With the help of Mr Ang and Hougang goalkeeper coach Scott Starr, he quickly got up to speed and Mukundan believes that he is now even better than he was in 2018.
“Once I knew I was going to join Hougang, I trained every weekend with Mr Ang for some basic ball work to get my body back into the groove of things,” he revealed.
“Then during pre-season, Scott made sure I brushed up on the fundamentals and honestly I feel that I’ve improved on aspects of my game since then.”
Mukundan, who was handed the number one jersey at Hougang, has huge ambitions for the future.
“To get the no. 1 jersey is a huge honour and I’m viewing this as a symbolic figure to restart my career. Hopefully I will get to play regularly in the senior team soon and help the club to qualify for the AFC Cup as well as challenge for the title.
“Just like any footballer, I aspire to reach the national team one day. I want to keep improving until the day I deserve the no. 1 spot at both club and international level.”
Once again, he is going to work towards his dreams while juggling with his academics at the same time, just like it was the last time out. Mukundan has enrolled in the Bachelor of Business course at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), which starts in August.
“I’ve always placed a huge emphasis on studies, so I will make sure that I excel in it while ensuring that I also achieve my dreams in football,” he stated.
Footballers who have tried juggling their university studies with their footballing careers haven’t found it easy previously.
Yet, with his steely determination and hunger to succeed, who’s to bet against Mukudan from achieving his aspirations on both fronts?
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