Pennant: Sending best players to Asean Super League won't benefit local football

Jermaine Pennant speaks to reporters during the signing ceremony with Tampines Rovers.
Jermaine Pennant speaks to reporters during the signing ceremony with Tampines Rovers. PHOTO: AFP

Tampines Rovers' signing of Jermaine Pennant and the return of Singapore's best players - the LionsXII - to the S-League has put the domestic game back in vogue.

Yesterday, more than 40 members of the media, including the international press, jostled for a vantage point at former Arsenal and Liverpool player Pennant's signing ceremony at the Komoco Motors Showroom.

Coupled with the rare sight of 2,000 fans - more than the average attendance for S-League matches last season - at Tampines' 2-0 pre-season friendly win over Hougang United a fortnight ago, and it is clear that the once-forgotten league is now back in the spotlight.

But all the renewed interest in the league can easily be lost if the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) continues with its plans to pull out the league's best players and field them in a franchise team in the Asean Super League (ASL), warns Pennant.

"I don't think it's going to be beneficial at all for Singapore football if the best players and the best teams are shipped off to a different league," said Pennant. "I don't think the fans will appreciate it."

Having risen through the ranks at Notts County before signing for Arsenal when he was just 15, the former England Under-21 international is a firm believer that young footballers can only improve if they get to play and learn from the best talents.

For example, at Arsenal, the then young winger benefited from being around stars like Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Sol Campbell.

Added Pennant: "I'm against it (sending the best to the ASL), and, if the FA and everyone else can back that, I think that'll be great."

While he may not yet have convinced the FAS, his sentiments are shared by team-mate Afiq Yunos. The defender was part of the LionsXII team who played in the Malaysia Super League last season.

He said the arrival of a big name like Pennant and the return of the nation's best players had undoubtedly given the S-League a boost.

And he added that if this season succeeds in reviving the fortunes of the local game, it is only in the best interest of Singapore football if the clubs continue to retain their best players while bringing in exciting foreign players.

Adding that the S-League may well prove to be a bigger draw than the ASL, he said: "If this season turns out well, some may want to continue in the S-League, help it to grow, especially if more good foreigners join us."

Another hailing the buzz around the league is Tampines playmaker Shahdan Sulaiman, who also played for the LionsXII last year.

He said: "As of now, there is nothing concrete about the ASL so we'll just take it one year at a time. I'm very surprised by the turnout for the Hougang match.

"This looks like an exciting season, it's the strongest team I've played in and I'm looking forward to it."

The Stags play Johor Darul Takzim II today in a pre-season friendly at Jalan Besar at 7.30pm.

It will be another chance for fans to catch the new-look Tampines - with the local game very much hit by Pennant fever.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2016, with the headline 'Pennant: Sending best players to ASL won't benefit local football'. Print Edition | Subscribe