Learn from past mistakes S.League – give Jermaine Pennant a chance

Despite his advancing years and at-times questionable past, critics should realise what ex-Arsenal and Liverpool star Jermaine Pennant could bring to Tampines Rovers and the S.League, argues Neil Humphreys...

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Lionel Messi isn't coming to Singapore. Nor is Gareth Bale or Andres Iniesta or Eden Hazard or Cristiano Ronaldo, unless it’s a sponsored day trip in aid of the Peter Lim Scholarship.

These players will never play in the S.League. These players have probably never heard of the S.League.

Pennant brings the unknown; that unique ability to do something no one else can

At the risk of bursting bubbles across the sunny island, Singapore isn’t a viable destination for the game’s elite unless it’s a pre-season pit stop for a gentle jaunt around the National Stadium.

For football’s reigning royalty, Singapore is a place to sell jerseys, take selfies for Instagram followers and eat something Asian and expensive at Marina Bay Sands. Singapore isn’t, and never has been, a final entry on a glittering resume.

Stating the bleeding obvious seems necessary this week as Jermaine Pennant prepares for a trial at Tampines Rovers.

The news of his impending arrival has polarised the more frenzied folks on social media, with some claiming he’s an under-performing, over-the-hill has-been strutting into town for an easy payday.

READ ALSO: Sundram plays down talk of Tampines being S.League favourites

Pennant clearly must stand in opposition to those philanthropic footballers who are in it only for the charitable donations. The English Premier League is positively overwhelmed with sandal-wearing do-gooders throwing pound notes to the great unwashed in the stadium.

Yes, Pennant is an ageing, unemployed, former EPL star coming to Singapore for the money. He’s not coming to stock up on funny postcards of the Merlion.

Still, there is a cynical suggestion that the S.League should set its sights higher than a winger whose best days were left behind in the previous decade. The S.League should be seeking to improve on last season’s personnel.

Did these folks watch the S.League last season?

Fans were hardly knocking down the gates to get in, while the standard of certain players left plenty to be desired. Delusions of grandeur are not only misplaced here, they are a threat to the local game’s long-term prospects.

The S.League has been here before. In 1999 another EPL midfielder, a player who was also heading towards his 33rd birthday and had made a name for himself for both Arsenal and the England under-21s, headed to Singapore for a trial. The legs had gone, but his name still carried momentum.

But David Rocastle’s trial at Clementi Khalsa ended in rejection. The club and the Football Association of Singapore failed to come to an agreement on his salary package as a marquee foreign player. Not for the first time, the game’s officials failed to see the wood for the trees.

The S.League lost the chance to sign the biggest name in its history.

Until now.

Well past his prime, Robbie Fowler still proved an A-League drawcard

Let’s be clear about this. Pennant will not bang in 20 goals a season for Tampines. As a slowing winger, his assists are also likely to be patchy, while his personal life has been more chequered than a Formula 1 flag.

Pennant claims to have settled down, finally tamed by domesticity, but there was a time when he succumbed to temptation like a voracious Hugh Hefner at his own pajama party. He’s no angel.

But Pennant does promise genuine pedigree. He brings the unknown; that unique ability to do something that no one else can. On a football field, the unexpected always intoxicates.

Pennant can get bums off seats. More importantly, he can put them there in the first place.

Robbie Fowler’s waistline was increasing faster than his goal tally at North Queensland Fury and Perth Glory, but A-League supporters still came for the cameos. Like Samuel L Jackson in a Marvel movie, Fowler didn’t carry the show, but he often stole it. That was just about worth the price of admission.

When Fowler finally left Australia, some of his fans stayed on at Perth Glory. In that respect, he left an indelible legacy. Pennant could do the same.

He built his career at Arsenal and then came close to salvaging it at Liverpool so he already has two built-in fan bases to potentially tap into.  Curious supporters may well turn up to witness an EPL brand, rather than a footballer, but this is hardly the time to split hairs.

Last season, they didn’t turn up at all.

So any decision on his future must be tempered with a healthy dose of reality. Like Rocastle, Pennant cannot get a gig in superior leagues elsewhere. That’s why he’s here. Like Rocastle, Pennant isn’t the player he once was. That’s why he’s here.

Like Rocastle, Pennant believes his track record in the EPL should be enough to eke out a final payday from Singaporean punters obsessed with English football. That’s why he’s here.

From Watford to Real Zaragoza, he’s been a risky proposition at every club brave enough to court his signature.

But a potential move to Tampines appears to be a win-win situation, particularly for a league that truly has nothing left to lose. 

Main photo courtesy of Stoke City FC