When Skinner stood up for Singapore

Posted on August 10, 2011

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As he chased India’s Arun Ghosh around the Jalan Besar field one August evening in 1965, it’s likely that all Wilfred Skinner had on his mind was a little payback. A little lesson to teach, that you do not slyly kick Singapore’s number one when he is on the ground, having just pulled off another save.

With the perspective of history however, Skinner’s righteous anger bears a symmetry with the mood of the day. For not standing for being kicked around, Singapore had weeks earlier been kicked out of Malaysia. How apt then, that Singapore’s first international game as an independent nation ended with a new Singaporean standing up for himself.

In the days following 9 August 1965, Singapore football, like the rest of the nation, was in tumult. At the beginning of the month Singapore had lifted the Malaya Cup as a Malaysian state, led by Skinner’s starring performance in a 3-1 win over Selangor at the Merdeka Stadium. A week later, the Malaya Cup champions were citizens of a new country. Caught in the transition were four Singapore players – Quah Kim Swee, Quah Kim Siak, Majid Ariff and Ali Astar – included in the Malaysia side preparing for August’s Merdeka Tournament. The four remained with the team, but Malaysia under German coach Otto Westphal flopped at the Merdeka.

Wilfred Skinner (in black) in action at the 1964 Malaya Cup final

One team that did shine in Kuala Lumpur was India, which finished third behind joint-winners South Korea and Taiwan. The Indians then traveled south for a couple of friendly matches in Singapore, captained by Jarnail Singh, the Mohun Bagan player who had been the match-winner when India struck football gold at the 1962 Asian Games. The Indians had also reached the final of the 1964 Asian Cup in Israel, and were clearly one of Asia’s top sides.

Having edged a Singapore Invitation team 3-2 in their first friendly, India met the Singapore national team on 31 August 1965. Defender Lee Wah Chin’s goal for Singapore separated the two sides at half-time, but India were on level terms through P. Sinha’s equaliser early in the second half.

Then the fun really started. India were awarded a penalty four minutes from the end, which Yusof Khan ran up to take. Staring Khan in the eyes was Skinner, Singapore’s Eurasian keeper famous for his physical stature and commanding presence in the box. Throughout his career as a national team player (1953-1967), Skinner had shown a real aptitude for brilliant saves – and he was to pull off another here, turning Khan’s penalty around the post for a corner.

As Skinner sat on the turf, catching his breath after the save, India’s rightback Ghosh decided to take a surreptitious kick at him. The big Eurasian, a policeman by trade, leapt up and hurtled like a roused bull after Ghosh, sparking the “wild scenes” described by the Straits Times as a number of the 5,000-strong crowd began to invade the field.

Skinner chased the startled Ghosh halfway up the field and into the Jalan Besar stand, before being restrained by officials. With the help of police who held the crowd in check, referee R. C. Brassey restored order; he then inexplicably restarted play by awarding India another penalty. Jarnail Singh converted past stand-in keeper Lee Wah Chin, to hand Singapore its first defeat as an independent nation. The Indians meanwhile required a police escort to the dressing rooms, and were not able to leave Jalan Besar until the still-incensed fans had dispersed.

The match will not go down in the record books as independent Singapore’s first ‘A’ international, as the Singapore Amateur Football Association did not gain re-affiliation with FIFA until September 1965. It remains however, Singapore’s first international game as a country in its own right. Skinner, the man who Fulham manager Vic Buckingham said “could walk into any English First Division team”, played for Singapore until 1967 and eventually migrated to Canada, where he taught physical education and worked as a handyman. Until his passing in his adopted home in 2003, Skinner remained a proud Singaporean – and a fine example of the defiant spirit of Singapore in the early days of independence.

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