Jermaine Pennant memories as Tampines Rovers crash out of AFC Cup
A year has passed since a Jermaine Pennant-inspired Tampines Rovers beat Selangor at the Singapore National Stadium to advance to the knockout rounds of the AFC Cup. At the more modest setting of Jalan Besar Stadium on Wednesday night, a no-frills Tampines exited the Asian competition at the same stage after losing 4-2 to Philippines' side Ceres-Negros, in their final matchday of Group G.
Twelve months ago, Pennant gave the kind of influential performance that was all too rare during his 10-month stint in Southeast Asia. The former Liverpool winger put his aging body on the line in a wide position to provide the spark that helped his side overcome their Malaysian rivals 1-0 in a must-win game.
That match was played in front of larger-than-normal crowd of 11,875 at Singapore's gleaming Sports Hub. But only 856 fans were on hand at stuffy Jalan Besar to see Tampines in their last group game of the 2017 AFC Cup.
They entered the match in third position, with an outside chance of progressing. They needed to defeat a team who beat them 5-0 in Bacolod only two months ago, and hope that Malaysia's Felda United could win away from home against Ha Noi FC, of Vietnam, in a simultaneous kick off.
But, within the first half hour, the five-time S.League champions had unravelled, conceding twice and seeing defender Shakir Hamzah shown a straight red card for a studs' up challenge on Spanish striker Fernando Rodriguez.
At the National Stadium in May 2016, it was midfielder Yasir Hanapi whose long-range, left-footed shot provided the winner against Selangor after sharp work from Pennant and Billy Mehmet. Operating as a makeshift striker against Ceres, Yasir had given Tampines a glimmer of hope by pouncing on a defensive mistake and firing home a right-footed bullet to pull a goal back on 23 minutes.
But Shakir's agricultural challenge, followed by a handball from vice-captain Ismadi Mukhtar that gifted Ceres a third goal in the shadows of half-time, effectively ended the home team's hopes.
Ismadi had come on a substitute only 10 minutes earlier as coach Jurgen Raab sacrificed Croatian forward Ivan Dzoni to provide defensive cover after Shakir's early exit. Ismadi extended his right arm to control a cross from the left from Iain Ramsay, and the Syrian referee pointed to the spot. Fernando converted the penalty to go with two earlier goals from countryman Bienve.
Veteran striker Khairul Amri, Tampines' hero in their previous game against Felda United, was brought on in the 53rd minute. He used his renowned guile to win a penalty six minutes later that was neatly converted by Yasir to put the Singaporean outfit within striking distance.
But Ceres killed off the game in the 66th minute when Japanese defender Kota Kawase restored their two-goal cushion, ensuring a fourth defeat in six AFC games for Tampines.
So much has changed for the Singapore giants in the last 12 months -- they have a new coach and a whole new set of import players -- but Tampines remain frustrating under-achievers. They appeared to have come into the match in a run of decent form -- they had won three S.League games in a row, without conceding a goal -- but made elementary defensive errors to hand the game to Ceres.
In the end, the defeat mattered little because of results elsewhere. Ha Noi's 4-1 victory over Felda and Johor Darul Ta'zim's 3-1 win against Magwe, of Myanmar, meant that Tampines would neither have been Group G winners, nor the best ASEAN runners up, had they somehow prevailed against Ceres.
Raab, the 58-year-old former East Germany international midfielder, now faces the challenge of keeping Tampines focused in the S.League to mount a meaningful challenge against Japanese Albirex Niigata (S), who won an unprecedented quadruple of trophies last year.
And for those Tampines fans who wonder if Pennant might have made a difference in the 2017 AFC Cup can console themselves with his indifferent form since returning to English football, signing with Bury for the second part of the 2016-17 season.
As the third-tier club narrowly avoided the drop last weekend, the stats of Pennant, now 34, read: two starts, five sub appearances, no goals, no assists, two shots, one yellow card.
Compared to a late-season relegation scrap in a lower league in northern England, Pennant's all-too-fleeting moment of inspiration at Singapore's National Stadium a year ago must now seem like an idyllic, tropical memory.
For now, though, his old club must come to grips with the reality of another failed AFC Cup campaign.
Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. Formerly Asian editor of FourFourTwo, he was also a CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @JasonDasey.