S-League: Balestier make title boast

Croatian striker Goran Ljubojevic (second from left), posing with club chairman S. Thavaneson and coach Marko Kraljevic.

SINGAPORE - It is a declaration often heard at the start of a new campaign, of improving on the previous year's progress, and sometimes, going all the way.

Balestier Khalsa have never won the S-League since its inception in 1996 but, after a breakout year last season, club chairman S Thavaneson declared on Tuesday that his Tigers are, in no uncertain terms, gunning for the title this year.

While other such claims have fallen flat in the past, he insists there is something different about this Balestier side.

"We have never won (the title), and we may not have the financial muscle of Home United and Tampines Rovers, but we have determination and brains," said Thavaneson.

Despite losing Singapore internationals Qiu Li and Tengku Mushadad in the off-season, along with former coach Darren Stewart and his assistant Kevin Wee - massive changes that would rock any club - there seems to be an air of confidence around the club.

Old boy Marko Kraljevic has taken up the coaching reins and, with him, have come star forward Goran Ljubojevic, defender Emir Lotinac and a host of young guns, including 2010 Youth Olympic Games star Hanafi Akbar.

"There's no pressure," said Kraljevic, with a smile.

Kraljevic was a player with Balestier in 1996, before becoming a youth football coach later on.

While he has laid his roots in Singapore and has intimate knowledge of the local scene, he has never been in charge of an S-League outfit.

"Having seen the boys in training for the past six weeks, I'm confident that we can do even better than last year. We are able to challenge anyone in the S-League."

Stewart led the Toa Payoh-based Tigers to their first major title last year when they beat DPMM FC to lift the League Cup. They also finished fourth in the league.

The 2014 Great Eastern-Yeo's S-League season kicks off on Feb 21 with the Charity Shield clash between Tampines and Home United.

Balestier take on the Courts Young Lions in their first fixture at the Jalan Besar Stadium two days later.

While deadly serious about their intentions, there was a relaxed, almost light-hearted atmosphere among the club officials and players on Tuesday.

Quality

"With the quality and the unity that we have in the dressing room, if we don't achieve what we want, it's going to be on us," said captain Paul Cunningham.

Cheeky grins were plastered across the face of both Kraljevic and a trim-again Park Kang Jin, who took a bow when the story emerged how Ljubojevic - a former Croatian Under-21 international -was blown away by the skills the Korean displayed in training.

Still grinning, Kraljevic led the light-hearted banter, demanding 10 goals from Park and 20 from Ljubojevic this year.

When talk once again returned to their title challenge, things turned serious once again, as Cunningham said simply: "We want to win it."

shamiro@sph.com.sg


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