Asian Football Interviews

Part of a Forgotten Generation: The ‘Nice Guy’ Kenny Poh Yifeng Part 2

In Part 1, we looked at Kenny’s beginnings as a footballer, his time with Balestier Khalsa, and how he moved to Warriors FC. In this second part, we look at Kenny’s thoughts on the end of his career, his solitary national team cap, and what he has been up to today.

For the next 4 seasons, Kenny would call Warriors his home. During his time he became a real leader in the locker room and was a positive influence on the younger footballers. Delwinder Singh, another former interviewee, remembers how

You could feel his presence whenever he was around, be it in the field or the changing room. He was like our ‘hype man.’ If you’re in the field it really gives you that extra energy to go that extra mile to fight for the result. He was a brilliant senior.

Delwinder Singh

Towards the last two seasons with Warriors, financial issues would plague the club, and consequently, the livelihoods of footballers were drastically affected.

Image Credits Warriors FC

“If the club didn’t end. My career wouldn’t end.”

Kenny shares that he had an inkling that the club was going to close for a long time before they pulled out of the league in 2020. For a long time, the situation was so tense.

“We kept on receiving a lot of bad news from the FAS. The thing is, we wanted to play, so many of us signed. There was both good and bad that [2019] season.”

Image Credits: Warriors FC

For approximately 5 months, the Warriors players were not paid their salaries, and it was incredibly difficult to turn up to training knowing that you would not be paid for that month. A few players, including Kenny, had been doing coaching on the side so it helped bring in some income for them. The same could not be said for other players.

Kenny shares how “nobody wanted to train because there was nothing to look forward to. You win a match, you won’t even get your salary, let alone a win bonus. So why would you play all out, get injured and get released the following season with an injury.”

In 2020, Warriors would still be around for the first few weeks of January before the FAS decided to pull the club out of the league. Kenny was still contracted to Warriors and was one of the casualties who went down with the ship.  

When the news broke out, Kenny approached Paul again and asked him if the club was going to sit out or participate in the 2020 edition of the SPL. Paul Poh informed Kenny that if he, along with the rest of the squad, signed a contract with Warriors, there would be a good possibility that the FAS might allow the club to compete.

At the same time, Geylang offered Kenny a contract, but it was a significant pay cut. It left Kenny in a bit of a dilemma. Does he gamble on Warriors, who offer him a good salary but might pull out of the league, or does he go to Geylang for much lesser pay?

During this part of the interview, Kenny asked me what I’d have chosen. And honestly, I don’t know. It’s really hard to give a definite answer as to what I’d have done had I been in his shoes. I tried to cop out and say go for a third option but Kenny was quick to shut down that prospect.

Kenny was 33 years old in January 2020, and he still believed he had enough in his tank to play a few more seasons. He could keep up with the under-23 players and challenge the senior players for a spot in the starting XI. He did not want to give up.

Image Credits: Warriors FC

Yet, the uncertainty of the Warriors situation compelled him to talk to Geylang. Unfortunately for Kenny, Paul Poh somehow managed to find out about his contract discussion with Geylang. 

“So Paul asked me what my decision was but I turned it around and asked what his decision was. I was very willing to stay because the pay was good and the players were good. We had Sahil Suhaimi and Delwinder Singh. Even in 2019 when we had no salary we fought until the RHB League Cup final. We just wanted to play for each other. Paul told me that the situation was quite bad but he had money to sustain the 2020 season and that he had already put out a proposal to the FAS.”

However, the insurmountable debt in unpaid salaries that Warriors had amounted was probably the key reason why the club was forcibly pulled out of the league by the FAS. As such, Geylang became the only option left for Kenny.

“Geylang offered me a pay cut and I accepted it. Then, a day before my contract signing, they said ‘due to the budget, they had to cut the salary [even more]. So that was it. I told them you don’t need to tell me how much. I am not going to sign for you. I really felt it was disrespectful but I wanted to play for Geylang and ended things with Geylang. I mean that was the club where I began my journey and it would be [fitting] for me to end my career there.”

But alas, it was not meant to be.

Continuing to Make A Positive Impact

5 years ago, Robin Chitrakar gave Kenny an opportunity to coach with the Active SG Academy and Kenny took to coaching like a duck to water. As mentioned earlier, coaching helped to provide some income for the midfielder whilst he was at Warriors but it also opened the door for a viable post-playing career.

“I was playing and half-coaching as well because you know how people always say towards the end of your career, you need to slowly transition.”

However, he had to turn to full-time coaching once he was forced into retirement following the Warriors fiasco, and thankfully, he had the support of people like Yacob Hashim, the head coach of ANZA Singapore, and Isa Halim (no not the former Singapore international).

What’s next for the former Warriors man? Well, Kenny isn’t as interested in coaching in a professional set up but rather is more passionate about developing young footballers.

I want to make them love the game more. Instead of scolding them again and again, and demanding them to do drills, I really want the kids I coach to have fun with football. While having fun, I think it’s then best to slowly teach them and they would understand better.

Besides working with Active SG, Kenny also works with a number of school football teams. We had this interview at a coffee shop before his football training session at NUS High School of Mathematics and Science. While students from NUS High may be known for their academics, they aren’t as well known for their football. I remember my secondary school team thumping them 14-0 more than a decade ago. The standard of football doesn’t matter for Kenny. To him, it’s impacting people from all walks of life.

“For some of the schools that I coach at, their football knowledge and skills is very bad. I am happy to teach them what I know, and some of them really want to learn and further their game. These players are actually good footballers, but they don’t have an opportunity to learn more. Many school football coaches just go to the schools to pass the time and make money. Students know because they will think, ‘this coach just comes here to make us run ten rounds to waste time.’ I mean, if you ask them to run and play [a practice match], what can these kids learn?”

The Solitary National Team Appearance & Reflections

How can I omit out his national team appearance? Of course, I couldn’t.

Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

I still believe that Kenny was part of a generation of footballers overlooked by the national team because of the foreign talent scheme but also because the same few players were routinely selected. It essentially isolated the majority of Singaporean players. Besides Kenny, players like Mustaqim Manzur and K Vikraman found limited opportunities overseas because a certain number of caps were/are required to play in other leagues in the region. However, how were they supposed to get caps when the same crop of players kept on getting called up?

Yet, Kenny did manage to earn one national team appearance for the Singapore National Team, a moment he looks back with fondness.

In 2012, Kenny wasn’t playing as much for Balestier Khalsa, but one day, he received a call from Mike Wong, who was then the National Team assistant coach.

“Mike Wong calls me, and he says, ‘Poh, you get ready, okay?’ And I ask him, ‘Get ready for what?’ Then he says, ‘Just get ready, maybe for some surprise, okay?’ So I told him, ‘okay, okay, can, can.’ [You have to understand] because Mike Wong and I like to joke around. Even at Balestier, when I travel with the team to go to Brunei [to face DPMM], I will meet him and have dinner or lunch. This was when he was the Brunei head coach. So he just said surprise,

When I went for the training, I did not feel match-fit because of my lack of games but I did my best. I partly got the opportunity because Mike recommended me to Raddy [Radojko Avramović]. Speaking of Raddy, I still remember during the pre-match meeting, Raddy told the whole team that, ‘Poh is a very good player but he’s very friendly; too nice.’ From there, I realized that I needed to be more aggressive. There was no point being a nice guy.”

Even though Kenny believes he became more aggressive after that session, he feels it was too little too late. At the time, the national team squad was not easy to break into and Kenny had been called up as part of the 2012 AFF-Suzuki Cup preparatory squad. Coach Raddy probably already had his squad in mind for the tournament. Even though some other fringe players were given a chance, Kenny does believe that sometimes such players are called up “for show.”

“You will always think you have a chance but the [national team set up] will always have their own few players [in mind]. Even if that player gets injured, once they recover, they get called up. It isn’t fair to those players who are playing week-in and week-out but yet don’t have a chance to play for the national team.”

Besides wanting to have represented the nation a tad few more occasions, Kenny also wishes he had gone overseas to play. Yet, the prospect of playing overseas seemed impossible at the point in time.

“At the time, we didn’t really have a point of contact. We don’t have somebody to help us and players below the national team didn’t have enough exposure. Nobody knew us. Even the news and social media then, no one talked about us. Besides the 20 to 25 players that regularly played for the national team, it was really hard for us to gain exposure.”

Exposure to the game also boils down to interest in the game, and Kenny mentions that he witnessed the gradual decline of the attendances. Back when he was a ballboy for Geylang (while he was in the Prime League), he recalls the sheer intensity of the crowd and the fanfare for the team. In fact, part of the reason why he routinely volunteered to be a ball boy was because the packed stadiums made watching the live games that much electrifying. Yet, when he began his professional career, he noticed things began to dip.

“When I started out with Balestier, things were still okay at that time. We had cheerleaders, Warriors had cheerleaders and even Tampines had cheerleaders. Then, when there were no more cheerleaders, the attendances began to go down. I don’t know why. Maybe people came down to just watch the cheerleaders.”

Yet the support from Singaporeans is also tied to the perception of our local league. Remember how I mentioned in Part 1 that Kenny’s mother was not as supportive in the beginning?

“My mother started to support me more when she saw that I can support myself. People always say you won’t go far in soccer. In Singapore, you must study so that you can get a proper job. But they don’t know that soccer is also a proper job if you have discipline and determination. During my time, there were so many good young players, but they don’t have the determination to work hard. They just want to have fun and take things easy. So, many dropped out.”

Donate Your Unused/Spare Boots In Good Condition

Usually, I’d end the article with some short summary but for once, I have the privilege to end it off with a call to action.

Recently, Kenny has been involved in a project where he helped collect spare/used football boots that are still in good condition to help less fortunate kids. He started this initiative when he came across some kids playing with boots that had studs falling out and were rolled in duct tape because they were falling apart.

“Having been around the football scene for some time, I know that players have spare boots and sometimes, even unused boots every season. The used boots might be in a “bad condition” for them but if you properly wash and dry them, they can be reused by these kids.”

If you have boots to donate – contact Kenny via Instagram or Facebook!

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