French flavour for Jaguars in 2013
Yeo Kheng Hui
Photography courtesy of Tanjong Pagar United
He has handled one group of Frenchmen before, but he faces a new task allying another force of Gallic alignment with a bunch of Singaporeans in his second stint in S.League football.
All the same, Tanjong Pagar United head coach Patrick Vallee was adamant his squad for the coming season would be able to work together well, despite having to find a way to integrate two groups of players who speak different languages.
French defender Anthony Aymard, choosing to continue his time with the Jaguars since signing for them midway last year, is now joined by goalkeeper Aurelien Herisson, midfielder Kamel Ramdani, forward Ismael Benahmed and former Morocco international Monsef Zerka.
All four were handpicked by Vallee, who went on a scouting trip in Europe soon after his appointment by the club in November and returned with what Jaguars fans will hope to be a prize-worthy bounty.
Speaking as he presented the quartet at the club’s pre-season press conference on Wednesday evening, club chairman Edward Liu assured sleague.com that the imports were settled within the Queenstown district, to immerse them as fully as possible in the Singaporean lifestyle.
“Not only do they play for Tanjong Pagar, we make them stay in Queenstown, so it’s close to their hearts, you know, the playing field, our residents,” proclaimed Liu.
Vallee was meanwhile grateful for the cooperation of the management, who helped sign the players that he wanted.
“Committee, management and team, we work closely; they trust me, we work together. (The club) followed me also to recruit the foreign players, mostly French player,” he acknowledged.
The former Etoile FC head coach was signed for his winning mentality, very much evident from that club’s double-winning 2010 season.
However, the sturdily-built man was aware that the challenge this time around is different.
“My plan is to play attractive football, with my style,” he highlighted.
“Most importantly for me, I want the fun, the enjoyment, when watching the game. I don’t know if you will see the same (as Etoile in 2010), but you will see my style.”
For fans to enjoy the new Tanjong Pagar style, the players presenting it must themselves be able to show their liking for it.
On that front, Vallee can be assured, for newly-appointed Jaguars captain Hafiz Osman was pleased to point out that the Frenchman’s coaching style was positively received.
“Working with the coach, Mr. Patrick, I think the boys settled in very well, and they are enjoying their training, they’re happy,” noted the seasoned defender.
“It’s important for the boys to be happy with the training, so that they will follow up (with a) good game, enjoy the game, and we will win the game.
“Actually now I’m not training, as I am injured,” confessed Hafiz.
“But on the sidelines, watching how they train, it makes me feel like I just want to put on my boots and train, because I see the boys enjoying, how the coach is very interesting.
“I’m looking forward to learning more new things. I believe Patrick Vallee is a good coach for Tanjong Pagar.”
While Vallee would already be considered a familiar figure for many S.League observers, Zerka, unveiled as Tanjong Pagar’s marquee signing, was a less well-known man to those who did not follow football in continental Europe.
The forward, who can also play in midfield, spent four seasons at French Ligue 1 side AS Nancy, after helping them to promotion as Ligue 2 champions. Four international goals for Morocco are further proof of his pedigree.
Yet the 31-year-old put on no airs, apologising for his limited English.
“Here, I know there is big potential (for the S.League) to be a good championship for the future in Asia,” he praised.
“For me, it’s a good experience to come here and bring my experience to the players and to help my team.”
Zerka, who has previously plied his trade in Greece and the United States as well, remarked that the S.League was known in France, but he was not sure how well-known it was in other parts of the world.
“I’m here to progress for the future with this championship and for Tanjong Pagar, because this is my team,” he said.
“It is normal for me to want to do the best, to help the club do something better than the years before.”
Younger Jaguars in the squad, such as Hanafi Salleh and Rizawan Abdullah, will have no shortage of mentors on the pitch, with the reassuring presence of veterans Zahid Ahmad, K. Vikraman and Walid Lounis.
Former S.League championship medal winner Zahid is into his second season with the club, while Vikraman and Lounis join from Gombak United, who have elected to sit out of the 2013 season.
Ahmad Latiff Khamarudin, dubbed a ‘local marquee player’ by several attendees at the press conference, will be another valuable addition to the Jaguars with his title-winning experience at SAFFC and Tampines Rovers.
While the 33-year-old’s quality is beyond doubt, and his fitness not in question after clearing the newly-implemented 2.4km fitness test on the first attempt, his reputation for being a maverick has often preceded him, even in these latter years of his playing career.
That baggage had prompted concern from even Jaguars chairman Liu, who agreed to the signing of Latiff only if Vallee was sure he could work well with the versatile midfielder.
Asked if he believed he could do so, the 50-year-old turned the question around to the media representatives present.
“Everybody talked, everybody said to me ‘Maybe you cannot handle Ahmad Latiff,’” he related.
“But I ask why? He is only one player, isn’t he? One player, it’s the same with everybody.”
Strident he may not be, but Vallee has certainly retained that air of defiance he is known for when dealing with sceptics.
And while Tanjong Pagar have set a conservative target of finishing in mid-table for the coming season, with a view to long-term improvement, the big man’s appetite for something better was evident.
“Of course, whatever we can win, we will win!”