No stopping the boys

Fadhil Yunus

Duli Pengiran Muda Mahkota Football Club, affectionately known as DPMM FC among their supporters, recently marked the 20th anniversary of their establishment as a professional club. The sole Bruneian professional club has since enjoyed considerable success over the years not least during their stint in the Singapore top flight.

Formed in 2000, the club, also referred to as the Merah Hitam due to its signature colours, started out as a college team in 1994 and the players were classmates of His Royal Highness Prince Haji Al-Muhtadee Billah ibni His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah, the Crown Prince and Senior Minister at the Prime Minister’s Office.

Long before the team turned professional, the early intake of players featured in competitions at the college level. After the end of the school period, the team actively organised friendly matches against teams in the Brunei League.

Discovering their capabilities from rubbing shoulders against teams from the Brunei League, the desire for the DPMM Football Club to officially register arose in 2000.

The club debuted in the Brunei League in 2002, which had returned after a seven-year absence, and were crowned champions in their first attempt under the tutelage of Bulgarian head coach Yordan Stoykov.

DPMM FC starting line-up against Tampines Rovers on March 6. PHOTO: INFOFOTO

The Jerudong-based outfit finished as runners-up the following season behind Wijaya FC but regained the title in 2004 as well as a maiden FA Cup with Amir Alagic at the reins as head coach.

One of the notable former foreign-based imports during the club’s early beginnings in the top flight was Oluseyi Ajayi, who became the club’s top scorer in three consecutive seasons. His goals helped the team win two league titles and one FA Cup.

Growing from strength to strength, the club proved that they could challenge other teams from neighbouring countries after they defeated a giant club from Thailand, Bec Tero Sasana 1-0 and subsequently winning the Brunei Invitational Cup in 2004.

As they embarked on a fresh challenge, the club represented the country competing overseas in the Malaysia Premier League for the 2005-2006 season.

They gained entry to the Malaysia Super League the next year, where they recorded a third place finish under Croatian head coach Ranko Buketa.

In Malaysia’s top tier of football, DPMM FC’s local player Shahrazen bin Said was named joint top scorer alongside Perak import Kieta Mandjou having bagged 21 goals in 24 league appearances.

In 2009, DPMM FC began their journey in the Singapore League and made an instant impression by winning the first of their three Singapore League Cup triumphs after defeating the then-Singapore Armed Forces Football Club (SAFFC), one of the traditional elite clubs in the country in the final.

However, their campaign was cut short after they were expelled from the league due to Brunei’s ban from FIFA.

After Brunei’s ban was lifted on May 2011, DPMM FC renewed their ties with Singapore football and made an impressive runner-up finish behind Tampines Rovers FC. The club’s charismatic head coach Vjeran Simunic, who returned to Brunei after it was made possible for them to play in Singapore again, seemed to work wonders in elevating the club’s progress after leading them to the League Cup title for the second time.

His work for the club, which had not seen a lot of competitive football due to the ban, was recognised in the Singapore football hierarchy after he scooped the Coach of the Year award.

In 2013, the Croatian again guided his side to the League Cup final in an attempt to win the cup competition for a record third time, but their surge came to a halt after the defeat to Balestier Khalsa.

Despite a lowly eighth-place finish in the league during his final season of his second spell at the club, Simunic played an instrumental role towards the club’s steady rise.

At the end of the 2013 season, the club grabbed headlines following the announcement of former Blackburn Rovers – who were then an English Premier League side – manager Steve Kean as the new head coach at the start of the following season.

The club began a new chapter in 2014 under Kean, arguably their most recognised head coach, who swapped Ewood Park in Lancashire with Hassanal Bolkiah National Stadium in Brunei.

The Scotsman, who famously oversaw Blackburn Rovers’ victory against Manchester United, settled in to his new environment with three straight victories against the trio of leading clubs Albirex Niigata (S), Warriors and Home United, all ending with clean sheets. After collecting only a point in two games, his team was back on track with a seven-match winning run but a 2-1 loss to Tampines Rovers FC on the final day of the season cost them the title.

Despite the disappointment of missing out on the title, Kean found success after guiding them to a historic third League Cup title in his first season in charge, becoming the second coach after Simunic to taste silverware in Singapore.

A year later, with a group of multi-talented foreign imports at his disposal and also the coming-of-age of rising local star Azwan Ali Rahman, he guided the team to their maiden S League title.

With a large crowd in attendance at the Hassanal Bolkiah National Stadium, the league title was made official on home soil after a 4-0 victory over Balestier Khalsa.

The club reached another cup final in the League Cup in 2016 – their fifth in six seasons – but fell short after a defeat to Albirex Niigata (S).

Every pre-season, the club conducts trials in the search of new foreign imports and over the years they have been linked with famous names particularly former Arsenal and Everton forward Francis Jeffers and former Portsmouth goalkeeper Jamie Ashdown.

A former Premier League player, Craig Fagan, who played for Hull City at that time, did lace up for DPMM FC but his career with the Brunei-based outfit was cut short after he was plagued by a long-term injury. With the focus on the development of youth, Kean has also brought on young talents with Aminuddin Zakwan Tahir thrust into the spotlight.

In his breakthrough year, he repaid his coach’s trust with a series of excellent displays and made 22 appearances. Kean parted ways with the club at the end of the 2017 season as their longest-serving head coach from 2014 to 2017, having managed them 135 times.

When it comes to important players, the club can rely to the likes of Wardun Yussof and Shahrazen Said, both are on the current roster and have been among their longest-serving players. Former captain Rosmin Kamis, who last played for the club in the 2017 season, will also be considered as one of the club’s legends partly due to the longevity of his career and his exemplary leadership qualities.

Following Kean’s departure, the club appointed Brazilian head coach Rene Weber, whose resume includes managing an under-20 Brazil national team.

In 2018, the club also welcomed the arrival of Ukrainian forward Volodymyr Pryyomov, who filled in the void left by Rafael Ramazotti, as the main striker.

Under Weber, the club made their first ever appearance in the Singapore Cup final and managed a third-place finish in the league in his only season in charge. The club made another overhaul at the end of that season and former Gillingham manager Adrian Pennock was appointed the new head coach.

Under his current leadership, he is also assisted by his lieutenant assistant head coach Moksen Mohammad and fitness coach Lindsay Davis. The club also introduced a new training regime as hiking and swimming were introduced to step up their fitness.

Pennock enjoyed a strong start to his managerial career after leading his charges to a 12-game unbeaten run, with nine of those ending in victories.

At the tender age of 16 years, Hakeme Yazid bin Said cemented his place in the club’s record books as their youngest-ever scorer following his debut goal against Geylang International. Following Hougang United’s 4-4 draw with Geylang International FC, DPMM FC were crowned champions for a second time in the Singapore league with two games to spare.