For a player of his tender age, Young Lions’ defensive handyman Harhys Rizal Gareth Stewart has sure been around the block.
Born to a Welsh father and a Malay mother, the 19-year-old spent much of his formative years halfway round the world from Singapore’s HDB heartlands, spending time in the United Arab Emirates and Finland before finally returning to the Lion City for good.
Born in Singapore in late March 2001, Harhys and family left for Dubai in 2008, before relocating to Espoo, just outside the Finnish capital of Helsinki, four years later. In 2015, the family came full circle, as they found themselves back in Singapore after seven years away.
“My brother and I grew up in Singapore, but we moved to Dubai when I was about seven, and then we would play every day in the backyard, play after school, play for the school team, and that’s really how we got started,” he told Goal in an exclusive interview.
Having been exposed to such a plethora of different footballing cultures at such a young age, Harhys admitted to having faced a slight culture shock when jumping between the various nations. However, with his long-held dream of going pro etched permanently in his mind, this was a challenge he wasn’t about to shirk.
“I’ve always wanted to be professional, ever since I was like five. I always remember saying I wanted to be professional footballer whenever the teachers asked me what I wanted to do when I’m older. Obviously, they laughed at the time!” he chuckled.
“But I always believed in myself, and having an older brother meant we could always motivate and push each other. We always play with together; we’ve always had the same dream. We’re both football mad, so I guess that helped because we have the same dream and push each other all the time to reach that goal."
And his hardworking attitude is there for all to see. Being an incredibly versatile player who would often find himself playing all over the pitch, the boyhood Liverpool fan recounted how he would go on YouTube to watch clips of top players in each position he was made to play, in order to meticulously analyse and better understand the requirements of the position.
"The two players who inspired me most when I was growing up were Fernando Torres, he was my favourite player growing up before he betrayed us and went to Chelsea, and obviously Steven Gerrard," Harhys continued. "Club icon, always watched him, really liked his work ethic, loyalty, and just his passion."
Upon his return to Singapore in 2015, the youngster attempted to join the Sports School, widely regarded as the best sporting institution for young players in the country. However, due to him not being a part of the FAS Football Academy (FFA) setup, his application was rejected, and Harhys instead joined Hong Kah Secondary, another school well-known for its footballing prowess. He didn’t stick around for long, though.
“When I joined Hong Kah, I trialled for the national team Under-15 at the time, and I got in around late 2015. So, in 2016, I applied to the Sports School again, and I joined them that year!” he explained.
After struggling to cement his place in the FFA U-17 team during his first year with them, Harhys began working with two coaches he hailed as hugely important in his career; national U-19 coach Fadzuhasny Juraimi, and his predecessor Robbie Servais, and he eventually turned his fortunes around to becoming a fixture in the side.
“The first coach that really helped me, even though he was a very tough coach, was coach Robbie Servais. He really helped me see what the mentality of a player was in Europe,” he said. “Coach Fadzu too really believed in me, and that just gave me the confidence to push on and do what I know I’ve been doing, to not be scared on the pitch and perform to my best.”
However, young Harhys’ career was soon to hit its nadir.
Part of the Singapore youth teams which travelled to Vietnam and Myanmar for the 2019 AFF U-18 Championship and the 2020 AFC U-19 Championship Qualifiers respectively, the midfielder and his team-mates were caught cold by their rivals. Finishing bottom of their group in both, the Cubs picked up just four points from eight games played. Just three goals scored and a massive 33 goals conceded, with results including harrowing 11-0 and 8-0 losses to South Korea and Myanmar.
“Obviously, there’s some catching up to do, technically, physically and also mentally,” Harhys said of the results. “Sometimes, before you go into a match you feel like oh man, you’re scared of the opponent. But I feel like there’s not that big a gap, and for me it’s mainly mental. We drew against Thailand, we played very well against Malaysia U-19, and they ended up going to the final, so we can play, but obviously we’ve also been very unlucky with some injuries to key players.
“I think we’re not that far behind in terms of football-wise, but in terms of mentality, the hunger, that’s what’s really missing. Some of these guys from Thailand, Laos, this is their only way out of poverty, so they’re really all in for the sport. In Singapore, I feel like sometimes people are like ‘I’m doing football half in, half out’, and aren’t really fully committed to the career,” he reasoned.
When quizzed on how Singapore could overcome this issue, given the traditional academic-focused culture here, Harhys was quick to echo the sentiments of Singapore U-18 teammate Iman Hakim, arguing that better facilities for youth players here would boost the standard of our age-group teams massively.
“To be honest, they need to invest more in the clubs’ youth academies. I’d say that apart from the national age groups, in the clubs there’s not that much professionalism in terms of training and development, so if you invest in this, there’ll be a much wider talent pool and more competition for places, because the club players will be a lot better,” he said.
“Right now, the FFA teams always dominate and there’s no problem, but once they go overseas, that’s when they don’t dominate and there’s a challenge. There needs to be a much higher competition level in Singapore first so there’s a lot of better players, then eventually with a bigger talent pool the national age group teams will get a lot better.”
Coming off the back of those tournaments, Harhys entered a period of self-reflection, struggling at times to bounce back mentally from such heavy defeats. With help from his family too, a huge pillar of support for him during that time, Harhys eventually managed to look past it, and began working towards his next target, earning a first professional contract and debut. Just over three months later, his big day would finally arrive in the form of Nazri Nasir’s Young Lions.
“It was a big, big moment for me because ever since young I’ve wanted to be a professional, and to finally get that contract I can finally say I’ve achieved part of that goal,” he enthused.
“Obviously, I’m not too satisfied and I’m not done yet, I want to just keep pushing on and I want to try and play overseas. I want to go as far as I can, so I know there’s still a lot of work to do but honestly at that moment it was a nice little check just to say I’m in the right direction!”
He wouldn’t have to wait long for his Young Lions debut. Aged just 18, Harhys started and played the full 90 minutes of their Singapore Premier League opener, against domestic heavyweights Hougang United no less.
“I wasn’t really expecting it, but I was ready to be called upon, and when the coach said I was starting, I was like okay, just take a deep breath and relax. It was a good experience, but it was a new one obviously. The intensity was a lot higher, the physicality too because now you’re playing against grown men, so I had to get used to it at the start. But I felt that throughout the game, I got a little more used to it, more comfortable, more composed, and it was a good experience,” he recounted of his debut.
Lauding the Young Lions coaching staff as a big factor in his rise to prominence, Harhys described head coach Nazri Nasir as a hugely influential figure. A former midfielder himself, Singapore icon Nazri won it all during his playing career, picking up a Malaysian League title, a Malaysia Cup, five S-League titles, seven Singapore Cups and the AFF Championship in 1998.
“Coach Nazri this season has been really helpful because we both play the same position, when he was a player he was a midfielder so he’s been helping me a lot in how to play the position, how to improve as a player and how to make the step to the next level,” he elaborated. “His success as a player really helps us because we look up to him and really listen to him, because we know he’s done great things for Singapore football and achieved all the trophies in his career.”
Another coach he paid tribute to was Young Lions’ Japanese assistant coach Koichiro Iizuka, hailing his famous attention to detail and perfectionist-style method of training as a great way for young players to improve.
But unlike many of his teammates, Harhys’ footballing support base doesn’t end with his coaches. In fact, he has a personal football consultant living under the same roof, with his elder brother Ryhan Stewart being a professional footballer for Young Lions as well, having broken out last season with 22 league appearances for Warriors FC.
“He’s really good because if I’m ever tired or demotivated he’ll just push me on and pick me up and say come on, let’s go, let’s train or something. In the past year or two, being in the youth teams, seeing him go to the U-23s, signing his first professional contract, and seeing him go through the professional experience really helped me prepare for what I needed to do. Some of the experience he gave me, it’s really nice to have that, and to have it in your house, so you can go to him whenever you need!” Harhys chuckled.
Ryhan is just one part of a hugely supportive family, Harhys revealed, who have backed him from minute one to chase his dreams, albeit with the caveat of attaining an academic qualification as well.
“Our parents have been really supportive, they’re pushing us all the way, they always drive us around to football training in the morning, on the weekends and stuff, and they’re always telling us to go for our dreams. At the same time, they also just want us to finish a little bit of our education, like Poly for example, but they always tell us to go for our dreams because if you love your job you never have to work a day in your life,” he explained.
Enlisting for National Service at the end of next year, Harhys seemed reluctant to take an enforced two-year break from the game he loves, but accepted it was something that had to be done as a young Singaporean footballer.
“I hope to do it as quick as possible, because I think it’s easier as a footballer once you have all this stuff behind you,” he stated.
“After finishing my NS, I hope to be playing regularly for Young Lions, be a big impact player, and hopefully be in the National Team, or at least in the mix with the National Team players. I know that my competition is probably some of the best players in Singapore like Shahdan (Sulaiman) and Hariss Harun, but I’m confident that if I work hard, I’ll be there, and hopefully be amongst those names in two years’ time."
Reiterating his desire to play abroad one day, Harhys revealed his lofty European ambitions, but was open to the possibility of playing in a big Asian league as well. Either way, the young midfield maestro is full of ambition and isn’t prepared to settle until he achieves the dream he’s held since childhood.
“Obviously Asia would be the logical next step, but the dream is to play in the UK. It doesn’t matter what league, but I hope to maybe be in the top four divisions in the UK, and I feel like that’s achievable if I work really hard and luck is on my side. Obviously in Asia I’m looking at some of the other leagues like in Japan, I feel like that would be a really nice place to play football at a really high level. Or even just looking at the Malaysia League, the atmosphere is really good, Indonesia, Thailand, all really nice places to play football,” he elaborated.
Harhys was eager to remind up and coming youngsters that there is no shortcut to success, and that hard work and sacrifice are required to balance both football and studies.
“You’d have to limit your distractions and get your priorities straight. You have to be at your training, then when you come back you have to study! You can see there are a lot of examples of people who have done it, but it takes a lot of balancing, dedication and hard work.”
“Dream big, work hard, and sometimes you just have to be a bit selfish, and not let other people tell you what you can or can’t do. Have one goal for yourself, and work hard to achieve it,” he affirmed, concluding the interview.