<Photo credits Leo Shengwei>
HOME UNITED 1
(Ken Ilso 35)
TAMPINES ROVERS 1
(Jermaine Pennant 39)
Twenty minutes into the match, and there was still a long line for tickets outside Bishan Stadium. Half an hour after the game between Home United and Tampines Rovers, there was still a queue of cars on a single lane waiting to exit.
These are scenes that have long been dissociated with the S.League but with a year-best attendance of 3,551 fans - among them FAS president Zainudin Nordin, S.League CEO Lim Chin and national coach Bernd Stange - the local professional football league's revival is well and truly on.
And it goes to show that the best way to put bums on seats at the stadiums is not free potato chips but pedigree. The two great goals were definitely worth the price of the match ticket and the two scorers in an almost tempestuous match have played at the highest level, in addition to 12 Singaporeans who have been capped at the senior level.
Home United's Ken Ilso had played and scored for Fortuna Dusseldorf in the Bundesliga as recently as the 2012/13 season and the 29-year-old Dane left former team-mate Noh Rahman for dead in the 35th minute before slamming the ball past Izwan Mahbud from a tight angle.
Just four minutes later, former Arsenal and Liverpool star Jermaine Pennant curled a superb 25m free-kick beyond Hyrulnizam Jum'aat. But then, the expected goal fest stopped and at times the match resembled a slug fest.
Despite scoring the equaliser, the 33-year-old Englishman was a picture of frustration as he frequently gesticulated to his coach V Sundramoorthy and his team-mates that they were not up to the mark.
While the Stags welcomed their 10th different scorer in five competitive matches, they just could not live up to their three goal-per-game average. Sundramoorthy brought on just Fazrul Nawaz for the ineffective Billy Mehmet, which meant that the likes of Irwan Shah, Mustafic Fahrudin, Christopher van Huizen, Fabian Kwok and Hafiz Sujad were overlooked for the supersub role.
Home United probably edged the contest, even though LionsXII alumni Zulfahmi Arifin and Faris Ramli were disappointing, and should have collected their first win, but substitute Irfan Fandi's 80th-minute header off Ilso's corner was cleared off the line by Ismadi Mukhtar.
The result meant that although hot favourites Tampines Rovers remained unbeaten, they also failed to depose league leaders Albirex Niigata and are two points behind in third place, after Geylang International moved into second with a 0-0 draw against Balestier Khalsa.
Home United are in a worse predicament as they lie seventh in the nine-team league, winless after three games having thrown away the lead in two of those matches.
While this was no high-scoring humdinger, even the best leagues in the world have boring matches, and this wasn't even close to being a snoozefest.
The signs are pointing in a sustained upswing in the S.League's fortunes, at least at the Jurong West and Bishan stadiums, with the JP effect still running strong, while Ilso and the two good-looking Fandi sons can get fans in a tizzy.
Even Home United coach Philippe Aw was able to appreciate his opponents' marquee signing in defeat, and said: "We came into this game knowing how fast Tampines' counter attacks are with Jordan Webb and Jermaine Pennant. We sat back and conceded possession to them. We worked on the counters as well and thats how Ken got his goal.
"But the inexperience of our players, knowing our opponent play a high pressure game and still persisting with short passes, that's when we conceded the free-kick and we've got to give credit to Pennant for a well-taken free-kick."
Pennant himself is clearly not here for an Indian summer or a holiday, and urged his team-mates to justify their title favourite tags.
"It is a bit frustrating to drop two points here with the quality that we've got," he said. "But it's not based on one or two games. There are 24 matches this season. We are still undefeated and only two points behind Albirex. We just have to start stringing some wins together."
HOME UNITED: Hyrulnizam Juma'at, Juma'at Jantan, Abdil Qaiyyim, Shahrin Saberin, Sirina Camara, Song Ui Yong, Azhar Sairudin (Irfan Fandi 74), Zulfahmi Arifin (Sufianto Salleh 91), Aqhari Abdullah (Ikhsan Fandi 82), Faris Ramli, Ken Ilso
TAMPINES ROVERS: Izwan Mahbud, Ismadi Mukhtar, Noh Rahman, Afiq Yunos, Shakir Hamzah, Izzdin Shafiq, Shahdan Sulaiman, Yasir Hanapi, Jordan Webb, Jermaine Pennant, Billy Mehmet (Fazrul Nawaz 79)