Kean eager for title defence challenge

Brunei DPMM coach Steve Kean before the match on Feb 13, 2016.
Brunei DPMM coach Steve Kean before the match on Feb 13, 2016.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

No league-winning team would presume their title defence will be a stroll in the park, but Brunei DPMM head coach Steve Kean might be forgiven for feeling as if his charges are in a completely different and much tougher league this season.

When the former Blackburn Rovers manager guided DPMM to their maiden S-League title last year, it was amid a lacklustre league with dwindling crowds.

Yet, barely three months after they clinched the title, the S-League has been transformed by the addition of former LionsXII players, as well as ex-Liverpool and Arsenal player Jermaine Pennant, arguably the highest-profile star to ever grace the league.

Such talent influx has made the league look far more competitive this season, and Kean points out another major reason: the new three-foreigners rule.

"With changes to the rules from five to only three imports, it is going to be more competitive this year," the 48-year-old told The Sunday Times.

"But this will give our local lads a chance to play. Most of our squad have been together for two years now, so we are confident that we can have a good season ahead."

While other S-League clubs have boosted their squads with returning LionsXII players and new signings, DPMM have lost stalwarts Boris Raspudic and Joe Gamble owing to the new rule.

Despite having a potentially tricky path to retaining the league title, Kean is relishing the challenge, even though he acknowledges that finishing above title favourites Tampines Rovers will be a tall order.

"There is more hype and excitement this year, and with Pennant and most of the LionsXII players joining Tampines, they are going to be the team that most people will look out for," the Scot said.

"But we are champions, so we are the team to beat.

"We want to retain the title and we have never won the Singapore Cup, so our main targets for the season would be to win both trophies. The League Cup will be a bonus."

The losses of Raspudic and Gamble aside, Kean has kept faith with the key players who lifted last season's S-League title.

They include strike duo Paulo Sergio and Rafael Ramazotti, both of whom are returning to plunder the goals. Last season's Young Player of the Year Azwan Ali will also be back, pulling the strings just behind the strikers.

Kean also singled out new midfielder Nur Ikhwan, 23, as the player to watch this season.

Unlike the other clubs, DPMM enjoy healthy attendances of around 20,000 at their Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Stadium in Bandar Seri Begawan.

Kean laments the poor crowds in Singapore, saying: "It was a culture shock and I think it's a shame as the games are of a good standard.

"Hopefully, with Pennant here, some Liverpool fans will turn up to watch the games."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 14, 2016, with the headline 'Kean eager for title defence challenge'. Print Edition | Subscribe