Having shared his mind concerning the league, Nenad touched a still very raw wound and his mood took a melancholic turn. It was a side to the confident and facetious man rarely or never before seen by people not close to him. After taking a thoughtful sip of his coffee, already turning cold from the air-con, Nenad Bacina began sharing his feelings, reaction to recent events which landed him in his current situation and also a few facts regarding Martin Wagner, the Marquee signing under his charge.
Cheetahs to Stags
Nenad had earned the affections of the Hougang faithful and the respect of his peers as he steered the perennial underdogs away from the bottom of the table. Under his charge, Hougang United FC earned a reputation as a hard team to beat and Hougang Stadium became a fortress of sorts.
“ At Hougang, I think I did quite well. I had good players under me and if I remember well, we had the last ten games or so undefeated and it was a very good experience for me. In fact, before I came to Hougang I already had an offer from Indonesia and on top of that a serious offer came from Oman. It was from Coach Raddy’s ( ex National Team Coach Radojko Avramovic) recommendation. He is a big name there so they trusted his recommendation and sent me the contract straight away but I had already given my word to Bill Ng and I was back in Singapore.
After his contract with Hougang United had ended in 2012, Nenad had already decided to go back home to Split, Croatia. It was early in the morning when his phone rang and the offer from Tampines Rovers FC came. His already made-up mind unmade itself.
“At that time, another local club had already contacted me so when the call from Tampines came, I had two offers. I am someone who like challenges. With Tampines Rovers, I knew at that time it would be a good challenge and with huge pressure at the same time but life is about the pressure, especially in football. So I am not the man who sit in shade and wait below the tree for the apple to fall down. I’d rather climb the tree. You see, when apple fall down, maybe it tastes not so good so I’d rather climb and pick.”
Before long, Nenad Bacina found himself at Hard Rock Cafe to be unveiled as the new Head Coach of Tampines Rovers FC and along with Marquee Player, Martin Wagner. Sporting a bullish front then, he had confidently told reporters that the Stags would be aiming to be successful in all four tournaments they were competing in this year.
“Yes, at the Hard Rock Cafe press conference, I was saying this year we will play in four competitions and the target is at least to win four trophies. Tampines Rovers is a big club so the target aiming was very high and I am fine with that. We started the league quite well but then we struggled in the AFC Cup. I can’t say I was disappointed because I know what went wrong and football is like that. No matter how good your training or set-up is at times you need to do adjustments and because of that we faced some problems in the AFC Cup.”
After a short pause, Nenad continued, “You know, in the AFC Cup, we are allowed 3 foreign signings plus 1 Asian foreign signing. I had to let my Marquee signing play so I made the decision not to register Seiji Kaneko. If I could have had Kaneko play with Kunihiro Yamashita at the back then maybe we could have done much better. I took out a defender and faced a problem with my defence but I had no choice. Honestly, in terms of performance, I think we played better in the AFC Cup than in the S-League but we got results in the league and not in the AFC Cup.”
Even then, Nenad still took responsibility for the AFC Cup debacle and defended his players. Having played five years for SAFFC ( Warriors FC now), which was the country’s top club during his stint, Nenad went through the same pressure in an environment laden with high expectations.
“Every game, you are expected to win and not just for the league title but for every other games as well. As a defender, I feel responsible each time we concede a goal. I always put pressure on myself and my teammates but of course, football is not about one player. It is about the team and not just 11 players on the pitch but the whole set-up involved. I used to tell my bosses that football is not a Playstation game. I don’t have a remote controller in my hands to control my players on the field. Players are people also. They have feelings, good days and bad days so we try to help them too.”
Describing himself as someone coming from an old-school way of thought, Nenad’s approach to the management of the team was a philosophy imbued in him at a young age in Croatia. Explaining that even though he would have liked to say that he did things his way, he maintained an approachable demeanour and listened to suggestions from his colleagues but not without a limit.
“I can tell you ‘My Way’ is my favourite song but it does not mean I do it like that and not listen to others. I am very open to communication with others and to hear their opinions but there is a special rule especially in a team sport. I have played in two army clubs; one is SAFFC and the other in Croatia. My brother was a soldier as well. It is something taught by a former coach and I always say it. Like the army, in team sport there is no democracy. You have to follow instructions from the commander, the one in charge whoever he is. That way we know who is responsible.”
His dedication to his task also meant that the future welfare of the club was of importance to Nenad. Even with the team, he had laid out plans for up to 6 months ahead even. Where the club is concerned, he had ideas for the future and had wanted to share.
“Football is my life and earlier I said that football is also a business. Clubs must have a vision and if they don’t then they won’t succeed. You cannot go one year like this, one year like that and hope to succeed. Everything becomes messy so cannot. Even though my contract was only for a year, I talked to my Chairman about my plans. He just told me to bring him the trophy and then talk later. So I said ‘OK’. No problem for me. I was not going to hide or pull off any excuses.”
Though open to discussion, Nenad emphasised that the discussions must be backed with facts, especially for those involved within. Pointing out that though others within the club may have differing opinion, their responsibilities also differ from his.
“I am not afraid to take responsibility. In fact, for the last four games Tampines played that I am not in charge of and lost three , I am not afraid to take responsibility for that also. People like fans who pay tickets, come and watch the game can say whatever they want. I don’t mind the media too. In fact, in a certain way, I wish I got more pressure from the media but of course, they must criticise with a valid reason. What I mind are those who like to make comments but avoid the responsibility. If you are from my side, you should not. I cannot change my way of doing things. I cannot change my personality. It is me but I will adjust. To compromise I can adjust certain things and be wiser in my approach to certain issues.”
Being a strong believer in a united working philosophy, Nenad believed that differences should be set aside in order to achieve greater things.
“My approach is that people involved with the club, we should do the best for the good of the club. If we do things this way then we can have no regrets. I always do my best and I know I can definitely do better as a coach. I always analyse myself first before other people.”
The Marquee equation
Argentinian Martin Wagner came to Tampines Rovers FC amidst much excitement and was already weighed down with expectations before he could even put on his boots and get onto the pitch. Nenad knew the tag of ‘Marquee Player’ would bring along with it a marquee amount of pressure as well. Nenad also made sure to talk to Martin often and help him fit in.
“It was tough for him but from the first day I was behind him. I knew it was going to be difficult. This ‘Marquee’ title is like putting a ten-kilogram weight around his neck. People will come to see what special things he can do, like you know, a tiger in a circus. Of course I had to protect him. Due to the AFF Suzuki Cup, several of my players were not available for pre-season so I could not hold centralised training somewhere. After the AFF Suzuki Cup, I gave my National Team players a further two weeks off. I never got the whole team to play together for pre-season friendlies and that is a fact. It was harder for Martin to gel with the team”
Nenad used Martin Wagner often in a rotation system to give him more time to adjust. Personally, the coach was pleased with what he saw from his Marquee signing and the signs of quality were definitely there.
“I tried to protect him in a certain way by rotating him so he can adjust. When I ask him to play, he played quite well. Sometimes, top clubs give their new signing six months to eight months to adjust but because he is here as a Marquee player, people expect a lot of him, like maybe score a overhead-kick goal in every game.”
Nenad’s effort to make Tampines a comfortable home for Martin came to naught. Sometime in April or early May, Martin Wagner approached Nenad and informed his coach that he had lost hope here and had decided to go back home.
“When he said that, I tried talking to his agent and to him again. I told him to be a bit more patient but his decision was final. So he gave a letter to the club asking to be released during the next transfer window. He was alone here and he had no friends he could talk to. It’s very sad. He was improving. He just needed time.”
It was a Tuesday morning, fresh from a 4-0 drubbing to Balestier Khalsa over the weekend, that the Tampines Rovers players received the news that Nenad Bacina had been sacked. Apart from the players, many others in the scene were taken by surprise at the move as the Stags were still leading the table and had two more Cup competitions to play for.
“My time with Tampines ran out. The team manager came up to me to tell me the bad news. I asked why and all he said was that the team must progress. So I thought to myself then, ‘The team is at the top of the table, so progress to where?’. I also never spoke to my Chairman at all. I am not saying that I am unhappy but I will be happier if I get to meet him. I think we did well as a team and I have to say I played my part. “
A professional at what he do, Nenad explained that wherever he worked at before, he would like that a good relationship was maintained. He was not the sort to harbour any grudges nor see anyone as an enemy, regardless of what may have happened between them.
“If we are to close this chapter of our story together, then we do it nice. I would like it if tomorrow, five or ten years time when we meet again, we can shake hands, talk to each other and maybe drink coffee together. I can tell you, without any regrets, that if I were to meet some people in the club again, I can look straight into their eyes but they will not be able to do the same. I even had someone come up to me and tell me that one reason I had to go was that I am not a ‘Tampines Man’, whatever that means. It is hard to accept and understand. Again I thought to myself, if he was a ‘Tampines Man’, why was he not happy when Tampines is winning?”
Apart from the mentioned reasons, Nenad still did not know the real reasons for his termination. He was as puzzled as anyone else. Trying to find an answer, Nenad felt that it was perhaps the way he worked.
“Maybe, my mistake is that I was too honest when I speak to everyone from all departments within the club. Apart from that, I have absolutely no problems with my players and coaching staff. I respect them and in return I only ask that they respect me as a person first and as coach later. I am the sort of person who trust others first and I let them show me. When you stand in between, you get to know who is who.”
Even though dismissed from his post, Nenad still found it hard to let go inside. The minute he left, Tampines Rovers went on to get themselves knocked out of both the Starhub League Cup and the RHB Singapore Cup leaving them with only the league title to look forward to.
“Still, I got feelings for the team. See, I play for Warriors FC for five years which is about one-third of my playing career so I felt bad when I saw them getting thrashed by Tanjong Pagar United. It is the same with Tampines now. I was a part of the team just a few weeks ago! I am not happy at all to see them lose like that. My players are a good team, good players most of them. Most important is they have good character. People who never go through it will not know how difficult it is to perform in every game. It is very tough when expectations are high and they also face injuries, suspensions and other problems. For me, I thought the boys did very well, all of them.”
Looking back, Nenad felt that he could be proud of what he, the team and his coaching staff had achieved. When he was asked to leave, Nenad noted that after 13 matches in the league, he had suffered only two defeats, a draw, goal difference of +14 and leading the table with 31 points.
“Last year, Tampines Rovers won the league with 52 points. So it looks like we have more than 50% of the job done to win the league. It is an achievement I can be proud of. The players, the coaching staff with me as a team, we have achieved this together. I am not very easily disappointed because I have faced many difficult situations in my career. This time though I feel somewhat sad because I never got to meet the Chairman and I don’t think I will get to meet Teo Hock Seng before I leave so it is sad for me but I know my ex-boss is a very busy man and I’d like to think he is just busy.”
Parting with a smile
“I am very happy and proud to be able to get this opportunity to coach Tampines Rovers FC, one of the biggest clubs in Singapore. Then after I was released, Tampines Rovers played Hougang United at Hougang Stadium so I went to watch. On the left side was the Yellow Brigade and to my right was the Hougang Hools and they started singing my name. That moment, it showed me that all my efforts here in Singapore have paid off. People recognise the work I did. It gave me a good feeling and a sense of pride.”
As he stared at his already empty coffee cup, Nenad Bacina’s facial expression had eased up in comparison to when he was recounting his Tampines adventure and his cheerful demeanour took its place again. As KallangRoar.com prepared to conclude this much privileged interview with a fantastic person and coach, Nenad had this to say to the fans that stood by him and the S-League;
“To the Yellow Brigade, Hougang Hools and faithful fans of the league, I want them to continue supporting their clubs whether they are happy or not with the performances and results. The club is there not for one day or one season. Every club have a history and a future at the same time. Continue to follow and keep giving more support. Bring some more people down! I can tell you the players will perform better for you. In front of a good, healthy crowd, your S-League players will put in more effort and go the extra mile for you. Thank you guys, for everything.”