Hougang United have high hopes for new season despite merger
Their top scorer has left and they are likely to lose their first-choice goalkeeper.
But Hougang United are in optimistic mood ahead of the new Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League season, likely to kick off in February.
News that the Cheetahs would merge with Woodlands Wellington, which was announced by S.League chief executive Lim Chin three days after the 2014 season ended, was met by an outcry from both sets of supporters.
That was followed by the departures of 21-goal Brazilian Geison Moura, who has left for the United States, and first-team players such as Fazli Jaffar and Syaqir Sulaiman to champions Warriors FC.
Singapore-capped goalkeeper Fadhil Salim, despite having a year to go on his contract, is also likely to join the Warriors, and Hougang have signed three new goalkeepers as insurance ahead of next season.
Taking the places of these seasoned players are the likes of winger Fareez Farhan (20 years old), striker Muhaymin Salim (22), and midfielders Taufiq Ghani and Matthew Abraham (both 25).
Despite the raft of changes, Hougang chairman Bill Ng thinks that his club will emerge stronger thanks to the injection of youth.
Speaking after his side's 3-1 friendly defeat by Malaysian side Johor Darul Ta'zim II at Hougang Stadium last night, he said: "We must be brave enough to face change.
"I know there's a lot of frustration in the local football fraternity recently, but I'm certain all the negative voices will soon become a positive force to push it forward."
As part of the changes, Ng appointed Salim Moin, who was in charge of Woodlands, as the team's new head coach.
Hougang's coach last season, Amin Nasir, is battling cancer but will be part of a team of technical advisers aiding Salim, which also includes former national youth coach Nor Azli Mohd, former S.League stalwart Akihiro Nakamura, and former Hougang player Robert Eziakor.
Salim echoed his chairman's positivity.
"It (the merger) wasn't messy, and there was a good understanding between the management at both clubs that made it easy," said the former Singapore midfielder.
"Yes, we have a young team. Even so, a lot of these young boys have S.League experience. Plus, they're hungry for success.
"What I want to see next season is lots of competition for the first 11 places, and I want to see our young players shine."
Salim added that the club had retained only one foreign import from last season - Japanese midfielder Shunsuke Nakatake - and the coach has been running the rule over five others who are on trial.
They are former Tampines defender Kunihiro Yamashita (Japanese, 28), former Warriors midfielder Shimpei Sakurada (Japanese, 30), former Rayo Vallecano and Real Madrid B forward Chupe (Spanish, 34), defender Marcio Santos (Portuguese, 21) from Portuguese third-tier outfit Louletano, and former striker with third-tier Japanese side Fujieda, Takahashi Manato (Japanese, 24).
Defender Lau Meng Meng, who is set to begin his eighth season with Hougang, is also looking forward to the new season.
The 32-year-old joined the club when they were known as Sengkang Punggol (they were known as Marine Castle, and then Sengkang Marine, before that), and has been an ever-present even as coaches and other players came and went.
He said: "To be honest, from the view of a player, there hasn't been much change except on the coaching and administrative side. And even then, Amin is still here.
"We are still in the midst of finalising the squad but, the way I see it, everything is geared towards youth, and I think it's a good step for the club.
"The situation is very similar to 2011. We finished seventh under Aide (Iskandar, now national Under-23 coach), then Nenad (Bacina) took over, some young players came to the club.
"It took some time but, in the end, we did well again. So I think we can enter the new season feeling positive."
Shahril and Bai: Lions will bounce back from Suzuki Cup exit
It's not easy, but we have to move on.
National team stars Shahril Ishak and Baihakki Khaizan, now in pre-season training with second-tier Malaysian club side Johor Darul Ta'zim II, yesterday told The New Paper that the nightmare of Singapore's disastrous AFF Suzuki Cup campaign was still fresh in their memories.
The Lions were knocked out of the tournament at the group stage, despite being the hosts and defending champions.
The duo were part of the JDT squad that beat Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League side Hougang United 3-1 in a friendly match at Hougang Stadium last night.
Skipper Shahril recounted the morning after the controversial 3-1 defeat by Malaysia on Nov 29, which proved to be the final nail in the team's coffin.
"I felt miserable," he said.
"To lose that way to our fierce rivals Malaysia, and get knocked out of the tournament on home ground... I have no words to describe the feeling.
"It's like how we felt in 2010 (when Singapore were knocked out of the Suzuki Cup by Vietnam at the group stage), but at least that was away from home."
The striker added: "It takes time to forget what happened, but it's tough.
"We just have to try and move on. It's not healthy to keep recalling what happened.
"At the end of the day, I'm now in pre-season with JDT, and that's what I have to focus on.
"I'm looking forward to the new season and, of course, the main target is to get promoted to the (top-tier) Malaysian Super League."
Shahril sat out last night's match, nursing a minor knee injury, while Baihakki played in the first half.
Centre back Baihakki said he was also keen to put the Suzuki Cup nightmare behind him.
"It was really disappointing for all of us, players and fans, to get knocked out of the group stages as hosts," he said.
"The players accept the blame and responsibility, but we have to move on, and I'm sure we will be back hungrier.
"I took a break with my family and now I'm back training with JDT, I'm regaining my smile and confidence.
"I'm proud to play for the team and it will be interesting to see if we can compete with the bigger teams in the Premier League and challenge for promotion to the MSL."
- Additional reporting by David Lee