By Kenneth Tan
A national athlete, a Navy regular and a businessman – those are the varied identities which Kanan Vedhamuthu has taken on at various parts of his life.
However, Kanan, as he more fondly known, has always had football as a big part in his life, which was what led to him jumping at the opportunity to get involved in his favourite sport back in 1999.
Since then, he has gritted his teeth in less glamorous coaching roles, before finally arriving at his latest destination – an S.League head coach.
In Part Two of our interview, Kanan talks about getting his coaching qualifications and his love affair with Geylang United, as well as summing up his first year as a S.League coach.
"I enjoyed doing business, but the opportunity came in 1999 when [then Woodlands team manager] Venga [Vengadasalam] called me to help him out with youth coaching at Woodlands," Kanan recalled.
"At that time, I had no coaching licenses at all! I was in my early 30s at that time and still very raw, [but] Venga told me: 'You just come and understudy the coaches first'. Thus, I took charge of the Woodlands Under-14 team."
That signalled the start of his coaching career, as Kanan started to enrol in coaching courses.
"Within months, he [Venga] sent me for the FAS Community Certificate - a beginner course. I'm not a former national player thus I have to go through this," he explained.
"In fact, there were no more slots so he talked to [current Tampines Rovers coach] Tay Peng Kee, who was in charge of coaching courses at FAS that time, to enroll me through the 'back door'."
Upon completion of the course, Kanan went for the AFC 'C' Certificate in September of that same year, before enrolling for the 'B' course the following January under former national coach Jan Poulsen.
He then completed his 'A' license in Vietnam in 2008 before recently attaining the highest football coaching accreditation in Asia, the AFC Pro-Diploma, this August.
Love affair with Geylang United
The turn of the millenium was the period when his name became intertwined with the Eagles' logo.
"While I was doing the 'B' course, Geylang United approached me to become a Centre of Excellence coach," Kanan recalled.
"Although my CV was not that great, [then-chairman] Seak Poh Leong was impressed and took me in as a U-16 coach.
"I was there all the way till 2009, where I went to take over Balestier Khalsa's Prime League team, but Lim Tong Hai called me back the following year to take charge of Geylang's Prime League squad when D Tokijan was sacked after just two rounds."
His second stint with the Eagles proved to be a much more exciting one than the first.
After a disappointing Prime League campaign in 2010 where they finished fourth, he revamped the whole junior Eagles squad from scratch the following year, which culminated in a title-winning campaign.
Things got even better this year, as he finally got his breakthrough when predecessor Mike Wong was demoted due to unimpressive results in the early stages of the league.
First year as S.League coach
"Since I began coaching, I always aspired to be an S.League coach someday," Kanan reflected.
"However, I was a bit sceptical initially when Tong Hai asked me to take over. The team looked like they were commiting suicide!
"Mike had signed all the unwanted and rejected players from other clubs, thus the team looked very weak. With the players we had, I thought [to myself] that this team wouldn't go far."
The initial period was indeed rough, as he garnered only two wins and two draws from his first nine games.
Then the mid-season transfer window came along, during which Kanan felt he had to act to improve the club's fortunes. And act he did, as he took the opportunity to sign a dynamic attacker.
"One of my friends who is French introduced Stefan [Milojevic] to me and told me he was interested to come to Singapore for trials. I thought [there was] no harm to let him try," he said.
His initial impression of Milojevic was not great though.
"We were playing a friendly match against Gombak [United], and he came at almost half time," Kanan recalled.
"At first, he didn't look like a footballer to me, especially with the kind of shorts he was wearing! I told [assistant coach] Noor Ali that he's here for trials, and he had a good laugh at him."
However, things soon changed when the trialist changed into his football kit.
"That time, I just told him: 'Go inside [to] change, and I'll try you in the second half'," Kanan said with a snicker.
"Within ten minutes of play, he [had] impressed everyone with his touches so he continued for the rest of the half. After the match, [the] first thing Noor Ali told me was that he had superb touches.
"Soon after we played another friendly against the LionsXII, partially mixed with a few Young Lions players and he impressed again in a 1-0 win. Even Sundram told my chairman [Leong] Kok Fann that he was a very good player."
Despite his chairman's initial reservations, Kanan eventually managed to persuade him to take Milojevic on.
"After that, Kok Fann still wasn't convinced; he told me not to sign [anyone] and live with what we had for the rest of the year," Kanan said.
"But I thought this guy had potential. I told him [Milojevic]: 'You just take a very low salary and try to market yourself this year', since he was not paid very highly in the French 5th division also.
"Thus, Kok Fann decided to give him a chance."
Signing the French forward meant that one foreign player had to be cut from the club, and it was no big surprise that English defender Rhema Obed was dropped in the end.
"Rhema was only on a six-month contract," Kanan explained.
"Moreover, I didn't like his attitude in training. He only liked to attack, and didn't like to defend. It's like he followed his jersey number [nine], which is a number for an attacker!
"I had to restrict him, and I felt my local [players] Shahril [Alias] and [Syed] Fadhil could also do his job, if not better."
Other than re-signing Geylang old boy Fabian Kwok, who had featured in the Geylang COE teams prior to his national service stint, midfield hardman Shah Hirul also returned to full training in July after a seven-month hiatus due to injury.
The duo, along with Milojevic, were instrumental in their subsequent surge of form, which was exemplified by their superb run to the League Cup final in August, which they ultimately lost to a title-chasing Brunei DPMM.
It was a slow process, but it did appear that Kanan had finally managed to mould his side into a unit that was hard to beat, with only one defeat in six games since that cup final loss.His efforts in fixing a struggling side has not gone unnoticed, as Kanan was rewarded with a head coach role for the S.League All-Star side at the prestigious Sultan of Selangor Cup late last month.
"Initially, a lot of people told me I couldn't do anything with this team too, but I told myself it was all about hard work [and that I would] just give it a try and see how far I can go with this team," he reflected.
He also revealed that a less-than-illustrious playing career has not deterred him in his first year of managing a professional side.
"When I took over, I did think it was difficult. Of course if you put me beside Sundram, he will command a different respect," Kanan emphasized.
"However I soon realised that once you believe in yourself [and] do the right things, you can command respect from most players. At the end of the day, it's all about how you carry yourself in front of the players.
"Maybe it's different from coaching big players like Baihakki [Khaizan] and Shahril [Ishak], but I can say that at least three-quarter of the players respect me. I can see they follow my instructions without any complaints and they get results through their hard work.
"The team spirit now is good and we have managed to pull off a few good results. I believe when we have a fully fit squad, we can fight [against] any team."
In the third and final part of this series to be published at the end of the season, Kanan talks about his plans for season 2013 and his personal coaching aspirations.