When I first started the Interview Series, there was a group of commenters who routinely called for Kenny Poh Yi Feng to be interviewed after each article was produced. Well, my friends, here you go.
The Foreign Talent Sports Scheme may have helped usher in Singaporean football’s period of success in the 2000s and early 2010s but in the process. However, it also inadvertently denied National Team opportunities for many Singaporean footballers playing in the local league. One such footballer of this “Lost Generation” is Kenny Poh Yifeng and a couple of months back, I sat down with Kenny and had a cup of kopi with him – his treat as well (what a lad).
He opened up about about his playing career and if one thing is for certain, it’s that the man has his heart in the right place. A nice guy who is passionate about the beautiful game, this is Kenny’s story.
A late bloomer, it wasn’t until Kenny was secondary 3 at Telok Kurau Secondary School when he decided to venture into football more seriously.
“The weird thing was I was in class and I remember the class being very boring. So, my friends and I were just talking about going to soccer trials. Back then, we used to play under block street soccer and one of my friends was playing for Geylang United. I was thinking [to] go for the trials after school [had finished]. I didn’t bring any boots or anything. I just went [for the trials] in my shoes and PE attire. So, I told the coach I wanted to go for trials and that time the coach was Coach [Vedhamuthu] Kanan. He told me to just come for training sessions.”
However, Kenny wasn’t slotted straight into the starting youth squad. Instead, he had to earn his way through hard work. Kanan always made Kenny pick up the balls, cones and other equipment after training sessions. However, the veteran coach wasn’t trying to bully a young Kenny. Instead, Kanan was initiating him into the team through a rite of passage.
“He said this is the way you have to work hard before you can get into the team. So yeah, you have to work hard. You can’t just come in and play. I am grateful to Kanan because he was the one who gave me a lot of chances.”
Yet, Kenny never believed he was going to turn pro. After all, he had only been playing void deck football and football during recess up till that point. Just like many typical Singaporean parents, Kenny’s mother was also not supportive of him taking up a career in football.
Two years with Geylang saw him turning out for the Eagles’ Under-16 and Under-17 sides before Kenny would move to the NFA U-18s, who were under the charge of Mike Wong – another prominent Singaporean coach. It was during his time at NFA when an interesting moment triggered Kenny’s desire to pursue a professional football career.
“We train at Geylang field that time and during one session, we were doing fitness and we became very tired. So Mike Wong said this. ‘Look at the prostitutes outside. When the police come, they run faster than us.’ That’s quite true though. They really run very fast with their high heels as well! Then from there, [I thought to myself], if I wanted to train, I should train all out. There’s really no point to take it easy during that one and a half hours. I still remember that sentence.”
At NFA, Kenny saw some of his peers like Ismail Yunos and Isa Halim swiftly progress through the ranks. Seeing how these fellow U-18 players jump through the age groups motivated him but he did realize because of his late start, he wasn’t of the same calibre.
After a year with the NFA U-18 set up, Kenny would return to Geylang for half a year and play for their Prime League team. Then National Service came calling and Kenny had to hang up his boots for a while but not for long.
“I was in Armor so I was in Gedong. It was a nice camp for me. During my first year, I cannot do anything and then in the second year, I managed to get into SAFSA. Before I came into SAFSA, I heard stories of previous batches like Bai[hakki Khaizan] and Ridhuan [Muhammad] could come out of the camp to go for training. But, during my time, they stopped this because [the previous batch] broke the rules or something. So club training came to a stop but can only go for SAFSA. Okay, but still I was lucky cause I can play for one year.”
At SAFSA, Kenny would play alongside Izzudin Rajabally, one of the most talented prospects in Singapore football to have properly broken into the S.League, and Balestier player, Sofiyan Abdul Hamid. Kenny had grown close with Sofiyan during their time with SAFSA, and when it was time for him to return to Balestier after his service, he asked Kenny to tag along.
The Professional Journey Begins with Balestier Khalsa
Not knowing what he’d do after his National Service, Kenny agreed to follow Sofiyan and was given a Prime League trial with the Tigers. When he signed his contract with Balestier though, he was given an opportunity to play in both the Prime League and S.League.
Kenny would call Balestier Khalsa his home for eight long years – a rare sight in the current game where most players tend to cycle around various clubs after a season or two. So why did he stay so long at Balestier?
“It was a comfort zone [for me]. You could also say that my good friends came to Balestier, so you wouldn’t want to leave right? Also, during my last 2 to 3 years, [the late] Darren Stewart took over and he was a very good coach. He’s the one who coached me at Geylang prime League as well and you know, I continued on because I could work together with him again. He also brought a lot of strong players from Gombak United so we thought we could fight for the title.”
The late Darren Stewart was hailed as a brilliant player and coach not only by people in Singapore but around the region as well. His passing truly shocked and saddened the local footballing fraternity. I couldn’t help but ask Kenny how it was like to work under such a well-renowned coach.
“He’s the best man. The best. He will understand you and you really want to fight for him. Sometimes, if he sees that we are not ready for training, he will ask us to all go home and take a rest and return tomorrow. He would say, ‘you all aren’t ready. Why don’t you go back and come back tomorrow?’ He wasn’t sarcastic or angry. So he was a coach who really understood us and we really fought for him during the games.”
Kenny also remembers a time where Darren helped him out when he got into some serious trouble with the club officials. Whilst playing for the Geylang Prime League team, Kenny and a fellow friend tended to take extra training kits home without the kit man knowing. Once he was caught though, Darren had come to his aid and helped ensure he did not get any serious punishment from the club.
Of course, the question then beckons, how did he get found out?
“I think the kit man will take stock of the training kits so once they realize one or two pieces were missing, they will ask around. Back then, when they ask you, you were young so you get nervous and so I just admitted. But Darren helped me out and said, ‘they are still young’ and whatnot.”
During his first two years with the Balestier S.League team, it was challenging for Kenny and the Tigers to win matches. Comprised largely of a youthful but inexperienced side, the squad went into matches thinking that they’d end up losing. After a disappointing first two seasons with the Tigers, their fortunes began to change. The club began to do much better after that and things began to pick up when Darren brought in his Gombak United boys. After all, Balestier won the Singapore League Cup during the Australian’s tenure as head coach. That has to count for something, after all, right?
Warriors At Last
If Kenny had his way, he would have been at Warriors much earlier than 2016.
In 2014, Warriors, who had just won the league title (and would be the last local side to do up till this date), made an approach for Kenny but unfortunately, Balestier blocked any advances made by the club. Balestier was still in the running for the Singapore Cup (and wanted to build off from their recent successes). Given that the Tigers saw Kenny as an important part of their future plans, they would not budge unless Warriors paid a substantial transfer fee. If you know anything about Singaporean football before Diego’s $1.8 million move, the act of paying transfer fees is largely unheard of. Thus, Kenny remained with Balestier…but not for long.
Usually, towards the end of the season, players would approach their coaches and chairpersons to discuss a new contract. For those unfamiliar with the local football landscape a few years ago (and some may say even today), players were usually given one-year contracts. So, towards the end of the 2015 season, many players in the Balestier Khalsa had already been informed that they were going to be released or retained except for two – Kenny and Yusiskandar Yusop.
“Both of us were the last two that were left hanging. We asked Marko if he wanted us because if not, we’d look for another club. So during this [end of season] period, Marko would go back to Croatia and it would be very difficult to get in touch with him. Then Iggy [Ignatius Ang] went over to Warriors first and so I asked him to pass me Paul Poh’s contact (who was also in his first year in Warriors).”
“So, I called him and we talked for a bit. I remember him joking around, saying, ‘Eh, your surname is also Poh huh? I will sure[ly] sign you.’ Then I went for training sessions and then I signed for Warriors. I had always wanted to sign for SAFFC (before they became Warriors) and I wanted to retire at Geylang.
In part 2 of this series, I look at how things ended with Warriors and what Kenny is up to today!
Until then here is a short prelude…
“Paul Poh is a very nice guy but he isn’t a football guy. He really took care of the players but I think he didn’t really understand the game. I think he loves soccer so much that he wanted to get involved. That being said, I am grateful for him for the chance to play for Warriors.”
Featured Images Credits: Warriors FC, Balestier Khalsa FC, Singapore Premier League.
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