Wooden Spoon 'challengers' Sengkang Punggol and Balestier Khalsa are seeking a good season ahead and they both believe they have the squad to do it.
For the Dolphins, the talk is “This is a brand-new team.”
Those who have followed the travails of the Dolphins over the years could be forgiven for having a sense of déjà vu. Theirs, after all, has been a story of constant change in recent years, having gone through backroom reshuffles several times.
What has not changed is how the club fares at the end of each S.League season since their merger; the last three years have seen Sengkang finish second from bottom in the league every time.
2009 was no different, despite the arrival of big-name players like Singapore internationals Indra Sahdan and Noh Rahman, as well as former Lions skipper Aide Iskandar. An ambitious target of a mid-table finish proved to be beyond that squad.
History has done nothing to deter Aide from aiming to finish outside the bottom three, however. Unveiled formally as the club’s new head coach after serving as caretaker since last June, the 34-year-old stressed his desire to produce results with this team.
“Definitely, we want to do better than last year, and climb into mid-table,” he declared.
“You might call me bold or brave, but I believe this is possible. It’s all about confidence and hard work; if we work hard as a team together, we will be able to achieve the target.
“A lot of teams in this league, I feel, are equal to us, if we play to our strengths. Geylang (United), Woodlands (Wellington), Balestier (Khalsa), Albirex (Niigata (Singapore)) and the Young Lions are teams which we will have to get points from to finish near our target.
“For the top four (of SAFFC, Home United, Tampines Rovers and Gombak United), they are definitely the giants because of their budgets and good squad depth. But we cannot rule out the possibility of beating them; if we think that way, we will not move forward.”
One of Aide’s key plans for the club is the promotion of young talent, a fact reflected in the composition of Sengkang’s 18-man senior squad for 2010.
Apart from promotions from the Prime League squad for Ashley Ow, Darrel Tan and Israel Tan, the Dolphins have also brought in 21-year-old Canadian Jordan Webb, former Young Lions defender Shahir Hamzah and R. Sivaneswaran, who turns 23 this year.
“We would like to gather as many young local players as possible, for the benefit of Singapore football,” explained Aide.
“The average age for this team, minus Amos, will be about 25. We are probably one of the youngest teams around besides the Young Lions and Albirex.
“For example, I’ve brought in Shahir Hamzah, who is definitely an up-and-coming young defender. He will be a national player in future, and the opportunity given here for him to excel, with me being an ex-central defender, will assist in his development.
“We should not forget that we’ve retained core players from last year like Nor Azli (Yusoff), Lau Meng Meng, Amos and Farizal Basri. These players are the backbone of our team, and I will depend on them to bring the team forward on the field.”
More significant than the changes in Sengkang’s squad composition, though, were the revamps in the administrative and management crew.
In a surprise move by club chairman Bill Ng, seasoned administrators Richard Wong and Robert Tan were both shown the door during the off-season.
Taking over Wong’s role as team manager is 51-year-old Bruce Tan, while 30-year-old Edwin Tan (no relation) has been appointed assistant general manager of the club.
The former, who has been involved in social football circles for the last three decades, humbly acknowledged that he has “a lot to learn”, while the latter said his previous working background was in engineering and management.
While Aide will also be involved in the management of the club, having recently received his degree in sports management, it was clear that there would be plenty of learning to do for the people running Sengkang’s day-to-day operations.
The younger Tan, the man who had made the “brand-new team” utterances, nonetheless looked optimistic that he and his colleagues can keep the club on an even keel.
“Once we decided to come into the football industry, we would like to see football as a sport grow in Singapore,” he said.
“The club is leaving the football decisions to Aide and our team manager Bruce, while I will be concentrating on other aspects. The rest of the management committee will seldom be involved, as we believe the committee has faith in us to bring this club further.
“This is not just a hope. This is a vision and our commitment from the management, as well as the committee.
“We will do our very best. With all our commitment and hard work, we will be able to do it.”
Top on the list of priorities, according to Tan, was to keep the club’s budget at a manageable level.
While he declined to reveal the current state of the club’s finances and the measures that will be taken to manage them, he boldly claimed that the club has set itself a six-month deadline to “achieve self-sustainability”.
A new one-year kit sponsorship deal with Diadora and a recent expansion of the clubhouse are signs of initial progress in that aspect, and Tan reiterated his confidence that the new management team produce a clean slate for the long-struggling club.
“We will be able to achieve self-sustainability in six months,” emphasized the bespectacled man.
“Every team needs a sustainable budget to go ahead. Achieving self-sustainability will not only help Aide, it will maintain us as a team to make sure that we can continue to groom more young players into the sport.
“We are a brand-new team, and we don’t want to be tied down by long problems of the past. With or without new sponsors, I believe that with the help of FAS, the club will achieve our targets.
“We will not let the S.League down. We will not let Singapore soccer down.”
For Balestier Khalsa, vice-chairman S. Thavaneson, believes the reason why the club did so badly last year was down to signing the wrong foreigners.
“The fact that my foreigners (from last season) could not even make the first eleven says it all,” he said, possibly referring to Brazilian attacker Ithamar Soares Rangel, who started only once for the Tigers between May and July last year, and Chilean midfielder Julio Eduardo, a perennial bench presence late in the season.
“The problem was that last year we decided upon our foreigners too late, so that’s why we got it done early this year.”
All four foreigners from 2009 have since left, and the club had moved quickly to sign their replacements. Defenders Daniel Hammond and Paul Cunningham were recruited from Woodlands Wellington and Australia’s Sorrento FC, respectively, as early as December.
Brazilian strikers Rivaldo Costa and Vitor Borges de Souza were signed from Brazilian clubs Esporte Clube Tupy and Sao Jose, and although the pair only arrived in Singapore in mid-January, Thavaneson said the decision to sign them was made much earlier.
The club are so certain that they’ve gotten the right players this time round, that two of them will even have leadership roles within the team, despite being new to the squad. Briton Hammond has been named club captain for 2010, while New Zealander Cunningham will be the vice-captain.
“I’m feeling good, very pleased,” said Hammond.
“We’ve had a good pre-season, and I’ve been captain for a couple of games already. I like to organize, and I’m a strong talker, so I think I can do the job.”
Hammond arrives in Toa Payoh together with two team-mates from the Woodlands team of last season. Goalkeeper Ahmadulhaq Che Omar and midfielder Kamal Nasir have also joined him in making the trip from up north, and Hammond said that knowing some of the club’s current players has helped him to unite the team fairly swiftly.
He said: “We are all very close; it’s only been five weeks, but we’re like brothers. We’ve gelled very quickly, and we always makan (‘eat’ in Malay) after training at the Fork & Spoon outlet nearby!”
Cunningham, meanwhile, was aware of the club’s issues with its foreign players last year, and hopes to be more successful than his predecessors.
Describing Hammond and himself as “strong, hard-nosed defenders”, he said: “Talking to some of the local lads who were here last season, locally they felt their team matched the other teams. It was the foreigners who didn’t do the job, so hopefully, we’ll help the club be more consistent.”
The defensive pair have also been impressed at what they have seen so far of the Brazilian forwards in training, and believe that the two will give opposition defences some problems with their physical game.
Hammond said: “I’ve played against Rivaldo when he was at Geylang (in 2008) and he is strong and powerful. Vitor is very big for his age, very strong. They’re both good players, very physical.”
Balestier coach Nasaruddin Jalil was particularly excited at the prospect of throwing the 21-year-old Borges – who stands at a strapping 1.85m and tips the scales at 87kg – into action against S.League defences.
“Vitor is a strong targetman,” Nasaruddin said. “We have not had that kind of striker since Paul (Bekombo Ekollo) two years ago.
“Last year, we were conceding goals from free kicks, corners – we were helpless,” he added.
“This year, we will not only look to defend well in those situations, but also capitalize on them, something we didn’t do often last year.”
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