Tampines Rovers 3
Geylang International 3
It was a long time coming, at least for fans of Tampines Rovers who made the pan-island trek from east to west, but, after 56 minutes on a wet Monday night, they got what they wanted.
With the scores tied at 2-2 in a stormy affair against Geylang International, coach V. Sundramoorthy decided to throw on the S-League's highest-profile signing, former Arsenal and Liverpool winger and Champions League finalist Jermaine Pennant.
The Englishman, who did not start owing to a niggling hamstring injury, had either scored or assisted in all his three friendly matches for the Stags. But he did not decide yesterday's fixture, watched by a raucous 2,930-strong crowd at the Jurong West Stadium.
Still, six goals and two red cards must mark an eventful outing for the 33-year-old as Tampines were held in a 3-3 thriller, a fantastic advertisement for the league.
Reflecting on his debut, Pennant said: "It's always difficult to come off the bench and get into the rhythm of the game but I thought I did that quite quickly.
TEAM HAVE GOT HIS BACK
My team-mates told me, 'Don't worry about it, we'll protect you.' So bring it on, I've got my army behind me.''
JERMAINE PENNANT, the S-League's star player, on receiving vital support from team-mates after Geylang's players appeared to take turns to get rough with him.
"I think Geylang will go away disappointed to be playing against nine men and not get the victory."
Sundram bemoaned his side's defensive lapses, and said: "Definitely we wanted to win. I thought we had them at 2-0... we should've wrapped the game up. Football is not about going forward, we must make sure we defend our goal too.
"But the boys showed character to come back. I'd take (the point) because we had nine men."
Both teams had a point to prove - Geylang, that last season's eighth-placed finish was an anomaly and Tampines, that all the title talk was not hot air.
It showed, as the match rapidly turned into a tempestuous affair plagued by over-the-top challenges, with referee Sukhbir Singh struggling to assert his authority.
Tampines opened the scoring through Jordan Webb on 13 minutes. The Canadian picked the ball up in midfield, ran straight at the Geylang defence, played a one-two with fellow foreign signing Billy Mehmet, before firing at goal.
A fortunate deflection took his shot over Geylang goalkeeper Syazwan Buhari and into the net.
Mehmet doubled the advantage on 34 minutes, volleying home a Hafiz Abu Sujad cross in the area.
But Geylang responded immediately from kick-off. Amy Recha charged down the right, cut in and fired past Izwan Mahbud.
The second half began with a flurry of chances and it was Geylang who found the net, Carlos Delgado thumping a shot from distance.
Tampines then lost captain Noh Rahman, who received his second yellow card for a poor challenge just three minutes after Pennant's introduction.
Stanely Ng made the Eagles' one-man advantage count after 79 minutes, converting from close range.
But Yasir Hanapi drew Tampines level seven minutes later with a stunning first-time volley off a Mehmet flick-on - only to receive his marching orders, plus a standing ovation for his goal - two minutes later.
Geylang coach Hasrin Jailani said: "Tampines have a strong team, even with nine men they tried to score. The first few games are always tough. Getting a point away... that was good for us."
Both coaches also hailed the turnout, and hoped it can be sustained. Asked when was the last time he had seen such a crowd at an S-League match, the 50-year-old Sundram quipped: "I think... when I was still playing!"
Adding to the higher-than-average turnout were national coach Bernd Stange, Geylang adviser and MacPherson MP Tin Pei Ling and S-League chief executive officer Lim Chin.
Pennant's wife, model Alice Goodwin, sat in the VIP area and was also the target of wefie hunters and the media.
Her husband already has his sights set on Tampines' next match against 2014 league champions Warriors FC on Friday.
With Geylang's players seemingly taking turns to roughhouse him, Pennant said referees should pay attention to serial offenders.
At one point, on his knees and with hands clasped together, the player pleaded to referee Sukhbir for protection.
He said: "I don't mind getting fouled or tackled, that's part of the game. When people keep getting away with it, that's a problem.
"But after the match, my team-mates told me, 'Don't worry about it, we'll protect you.' So bring it on, I've got my army behind me."