Shah Shahiran hopes to be the future of Lions' midfield
Shah Shahiran grew up a Tampines Rovers supporter and his role models were Shahdan Sulaiman and Noh Alam Shah, not only for their abilities on the field but also because all three share the same name.
Former Lions striker Noh Alam is retired but Shah is realising his footballing dream after being thrust into the starting XI in Singapore's last two games alongside Shahdan in midfield.
Both showed a good understanding of each other's game and linked up well as the Lions performed creditably despite losing 2-0 to Kuwait in friendly earlier this month before Wednesday's (June 8) 2-1 loss by hosts Kyrgyzstan in their opening match of the Asian Cup qualifier.
Shah, 22, said: "I used to love watching Tampines because of their style of play but I was particularly a fan of Shahdan and Noh Alam because they shared almost the same name as me.
"Then when I started to watch Shahdan in training, I realised even more how good he is. I learned so much from him especially about the precision needed in midfield."
He will need to be at his sharpest as world No. 158 Singapore face 114th-ranked Tajikistan in their second qualifying match on Saturday at the Dolen Omuzakov Stadium in Bishkek.
Tajikistan lead Group F after a 4-0 win over Myanmar.
The Republic have never qualified for the Asian Cup other than a sole appearance in 1984 as hosts. The six group winners and five best second-placed teams will advance to the finals next year.
Singapore coach Takayuki Nishigaya believes Shah can be a focal part of the national side in the years to come. The Japanese, who kept Shah on the pitch for the full 180 minutes in the last two games, said: "He has a big future. He can control the games from midfield. But I want him to be more involved in the attacking phases."
Earlier this year, Shah signed a five-year-contract with the Stags and will return to the club when he completes his National Service next February. He currently turns out for the Young Lions in the Singapore Premier League and has impressed with his reading of the game and passing ability.
For the last decade or so, the Lions' midfield of Shahdan and captain Hariss Harun has almost picked itself. Shahdan, who made his debut in 2010, however is now 34 while Hariss, who earned his first cap in 2007, mainly plays in defence for club and country.
Other midfield candidates are not young as well - Tampines captain Yasir Hanapi is 32 while Hougang United's Zulfahmi Arifin is 30.
Shah is expected to contend with the likes of Young Lions midfielder Joel Chew (22), Lion City Sailors' Saifullah Akbar (23), Adam Swandi (26) and Hami Syahin (23) in the long term.
Shah noted: "Intensity wise, international football is much higher than what I am used to. You don't even have time to control the ball and look up.
"I know what I have to do to improve and I want to keep working hard and keep training to improve on my game. Hopefully, I can hold this position down."
Tajikistan are not familiar opponents to Singapore. They have only met twice previously, during the 2010 World Cup qualifiers held in November 2007. Singapore won 2-0 at home and claimed a 1-1 away draw.
Nishigaya is confident that his side can produce a win to keep qualification hopes alive. He said: "I told the players that we have two more games and we still have a chance to qualify. They were disappointed about the result but they are already focusing on the next game.
"If we continue (the way we played against Kyrgyzstan) , we will be able to get the three points."