Jermaine Pennant exits Singapore with a whimper after failing to sparkle in S.League
What began with the biggest media frenzy in S.League history ends with barely a whimper as ex-Liverpool winger quietly flies home
What began with the biggest media frenzy in S.League history last January ended with barely a whimper on Monday night when ex-Liverpool winger Jermaine Pennant quietly flew home to the UK.
After promising so much, Pennant’s nine-and-a-half month stay in Singapore ultimately failed to deliver, despite a reported salary of S$20,000 per month.
His club, Tampines Rovers, were unable to win any silverware, even with a squad packed with 13 Singapore internationals, and some of the league’s best import players. They were outplayed and outclassed all season by a team of Japanese no-names – Albirex Niigata (S) are a developmental side – who scooped all four trophies on offer.
The ultimate insult came at Jalan Besar Stadium last Saturday when Pennant was left out of the starting lineup by coach Akbar Nawas as S.League runners up Tampines lost 2-0 to Albirex in the 2016 Singapore Cup final. He was only introduced to the game in the 68th minute, with his side trailing 1-0 at Jalan Besar Stadium.
When questioned about why he benched his highest-paid player in his farewell match that was also a major final, Akbar declared that he would make the same decision again 1,000 times over.
“He had his chance in the last 30 minutes to turn the game around,” Akbar added. “You decide if he did that.”
At 33, Pennant struggled for much of the season with niggling hamstring, calf and Achilles injuries that either sidelined him, or reduced his effectiveness.
In 21 S.League games, including six appearances off the bench, he scored only five times. Twelve matches in Cup competitions, including the AFC Cup, produced just a single goal.
In his heyday, Pennant was a flying right winger, who shone for Liverpool in the 2007 UEFA Champions League final, and appeared for Stoke City in the 2011 FA Cup final. But, at Tampines, fans were baffled by his deep-lying midfield role – football’s equivalent of an American football quarterback – where he would often spray balls forward often from a leftback position.
Pennant took most of Tampines’ free kicks and corners. When it came to the quality of his set pieces, he was head and shoulders above anyone else in the S.League. But as the island’s biggest ever signing, Pennant failed to put his stamp on proceedings in a Tampines’ late-season slump that saw them exit the AFC Cup in September, and lose three consecutive S.League games to kill off their title hopes.
A few months earlier, it was all going so well. After V. Sundramoorthy departed to take over as national coach in May, Tampines went on an eight-game winning streak under former assistant Akbar, as Pennant combined beautifully with Canadian winger Jordan Webb, and former Ireland under-21 striker Billy Mehmet.
A few weeks earlier, he produced his best performance in a Tampines’ jersey – in his trademark right wing role – as the S.League side defeated Malaysian giants Selangor in the AFC Cup at the Singapore National Stadium on May 10. Pennant was reportedly hoping to impress then-Selangor coach Zainal Abidin Hassan, with a view to getting a move across the border for 2017.
But things would soon sour as injuries sidelined key Tampines attackers Fazrul Nawaz and Shahdan Sulaiman, and the goals dried up. Sources said that fingers within the dressing room started to point at Pennant, who seemed powerless to stop the rot, despite a salary at least three times higher than most of teammates. Club captain Fahrudin Mustafic stood up for the British import, saying it was unfair to make him the scapegoat for the team’s sub-par performances.
To his credit, one-time bad boy Pennant was the ultimate professional off the field during his time at Tampines Rovers, patiently agreed to media requests and countless autograph signings. Indeed, the club could have better capitalised on his profile, with more public appearances at shopping malls, and junior coaching clinics.
As for his life in Singapore, Pennant stayed in the quiet Bedok Reservoir area in a modern condo, near a pet shop and beauty salon. His neighbours were fellow imports Webb and Mehmet, and the trio could often be found having coffees at the Refuel Café, across the road from their complex. Having often been the target of tabloid newspapers during his wayward, younger days, Pennant enjoyed the relative anonymity of Singapore’s eastern heartland where local Chinese TV dramas are often more closely followed than S-League matches.
Back at his home at Stoke-on-Trent this week, Pennant’s immediate future is unclear, as he weighs up offers from the English lower leagues. It seems unlikely, however, that he will ever play in Asia again.
His last Asian act came during injury time in Saturday night’s Singapore Cup final, as he took a corner kick with Tampines looking to salvage some pride through a late consolation goal. The ball from his boot sailed safely into the Albirex goalkeeper’s hands, and the referee blew the full-time whistle.
That single moment, more or less, summed up Pennant’s unfulfilled Singapore chapter.
Former SCMP columnist Jason Dasey is the Asia-based senior editor of ESPN FC