Village sportsmen who became national heroes

The early Hotspurs team that set the tone for success (from left) Letchumanan, Rajoo, Santokh Singh, N Nallathamby, Thomas Arokiam, Seluadurai, Ahmad Makbul, Genggaraju, Terence Leong, Tommy Pereira, and P T Rajan. (Hotspurs pic)

KUALA LUMPUR: In the late 1960s, a certain Santokh Singh was the ball boy for the Hotspurs, a football team in the tiny village of Setapak Hot Spring here.

He did that while waiting his turn to play as a striker because there were better players on the pitch.

When he finally managed a regular place in the team, there were two other ball boys, K Rajagobal and R Subramaniam.

Santokh would go on to become a household name as one of Malaysia’s best defenders while Rajagobal and Subramaniam made headlines as a striker and fullback, respectively.

Other Hotspurs players who made it big were former national youth stars N Nallathamby (later national referee) and S Supramaniam.

Football ran in the Hotspurs family: Rajagobal’s older brother, the late Gengarajoo, played for Malacca in the 70s while Subramaniam’s brother, the late Ramachandran featured for Selangor.

(L-R) S Supramaniam, Tommy Pereira and P T Rajan were among those who put Hotspurs on the football map.

Nallathamby’s son, Suresh, was a regular with the Kuala Lumpur youth and senior teams along with his pal Ishak Kunju who is now Police FC coach.

Other unlikely heroes from the village were hockey internationals Avtar Singh Gill, his younger brother Balbir and Updesh Singh.

They played by the side of the football field, placing small goal posts, and competed in six-a side tournaments.

The ebullient stories of the sportsmen are a portrayal of how sports transformed a dot on the map into a wondrous place.

Sports changed the complexion of the village that was notorious for gangsters and drug addicts.

Hot Spring, 6km from the capital city, was among the new villages in Malaysia established in the 60s to segregate primarily Chinese villagers from contact with the communists.

The hot spring, a large steaming pool, today lies in the compound of the Resource Springs Apartments and is open to the public.

The exploits of Hotspurs’ famous sons burst with excitement as several of them came together recently for breakfast at Rajagobal’s house to relate their experiences to FMT.

It took off in 1964 when a resident, Thomas Ariokam, gathered some youngsters to form a team to keep them away from gangsterism and drugs.

Arokiam, 73, said then neighbours Tommy Pereira and P T Rajan helped him to form Hotspurs.

He said since their village was Hot Spring, they named the team after double-winning Tottenham Hotspur, who won the English First Division League and FA Cup in the 1960-61 season.

They knocked on doors asking for donations to manage the team, bought second-hand jerseys for $40 and played their first match in 1964 against the Comets.

Self-trained, they won the match. Fan support increased and donations poured in.

In their first tournament, Hotspurs won the trophy donated by a resident, Lieutenant G. Thavakumar.

The yesteryear Hotspurs today (from left): S Supramaniam, Steven Puung, Tommy Pereira, K Rajagobal, Thomas Arokiam, K Pathimanathan, Santokh Singh, R Rajasooria and front row R Subramaniam, N Nallathamby and Ishak Kunju.

Pereira – a Hotspurs player and Statistics Department employee – got the manager of Selangor league team, Cholan Youth, the late Joseph Jagan, to assess his teammates.

He said among the Hotspurs players who made the cut for Cholan Youth were Rajagobal, Subramaniam and goalkeeper S Gunasegaran.

Pereira said since Hotspurs did not have funds to play in the Selangor league, they decided to be a feeder team by providing experience for young players with an agreement that those successful could join clubs in the higher divisions.

The clubs that benefited from Hotspurs included TPCA, PKNS, Cochrane Youth Club and Selangor Indian Association.

“Soon, we became a feeder for the national youth, state and national teams,” said Pereira, 70, who retired as army lieutenant colonel and is the current president of the Cobra Rugby Club.

Santokh, now 68, said he was asked by Arokiam to first play for Cochrane Youth Club, coached by the late police officer Jeswant Singh.

He said while playing for the club, he was picked to represent Selangor in the 1971 Burnley Cup, a national youth tournament.

PKNS then employed Santokh who brought in Rajagobal in 1974 to build a formidable team with the likes of the late Mokhtar Dahari, R Arumugam and Reduan Abdullah.

“I owe it to Hotspurs for laying the route to success,” said Hot Spring-born Santokh who made 104 appearances for Malaysia from 1972-1980 and who played 365 times for Selangor from 1972-1985.

Rajagobal, 64, said that it was Arokiam’s vision to form a football team that saw many players make the grade.

Thomas Arokiam hoisted by his players after a Hotspurs triumph in a tournament at the Hot Spring field. (Hotspurs pic)

“We owe it to the pioneer members of the team for where we are today,” said Rajagobal who has also excelled as a coach at state and national levels.

“It is unique that a small village like ours produced many talented football and hockey players,” he said.

Subramaniam, 63, said it was a rare honour for Hotspurs in the mid-70s when he played with Santokh and Rajagobal, his schoolmate at Setapak High School, at the same time for Selangor and the nation.

The first player to put Hot Spring on the football radar was midfielder Nallathamby who made the Selangor Burnley Cup squad in 1968.

He was followed by Supramaniam in 1971 when he represented Malaysia in the Asian Youth tournament in Tokyo.

Supramaniam also did the village proud by graduating as a lawyer from University of Malaya. He is now the president of the Malaysian Evaluation Society.

Another Hotspurs player who became a lawyer is Steven Puung.

The Hotspurs ‘football factory’ stopped rolling in the late 80s when many residents moved out.

A new team by the same name emerged in the 2000s but the pioneers decided against assisting them due to differing vision and political party involvement.

An emotional Arokiam says Hotspurs will always stand tall for having immensely contributed to national sports as a village outfit.