They have met many times before when the home side at Hougang Stadium was known as Sengkang Punggol, but it is all going to be different now as Woodlands Wellington should discover on Monday at the opening home game of the Great Eastern-YEO’S S.League season for the locals.
When a boisterous group of new fans of the Dolphins began to congregate mid-season in 2010, wearing insignia that bore the name ‘United4United’, it may not have seemed too relevant to the uninitiated.
But this year those aquatic creatures they were then supporting have re-emerged as ‘Cheetahs’ and in the new official name of Hougang United.
And so, the United4United fans who cheered so loudly after joining ranks at the middle of last season will have even more reason to get behind their newly-named team, complete with a new orange and black strip and with a fanciful new crest.
Fans arriving at the stadium will be confronted now by a sign over the entrance way proclaiming “Hougang Stadium – home of the Cheetah”.
They will also see a fans’ stall right outside the front gates manned by the United4United supporters group.
Their origins may have sprung from a mutual love of Manchester United, but these dedicated, nay, passionate Hougang fans have moved well beyond that now.
What began as an assembly of only five has mushroomed into a core group of thirty and continues to grow.
It is the supporters themselves who will be encouraging fans to sign up for season tickets, buy button badges United4United have designed in tandem with the club and put in orders for the new club scarves, which were also an initiative the supporters group came up with.
These days, United4United really is behind this Singapore club that now carries the United name as well, and the highly vocal group have now happily embraced local supporters of EPL clubs, including the Red Devils’ fiercest rivals Manchester City, Liverpool and even Chelsea.
“Everyone is welcome,” explained co-chairman Johnathan Francis, when, accompanied by another die-hard on the committee, George Ng, they discussed the prospects for a United win on Monday with sleague.com.
Fellow co-chairman Mervyn Tan is no less enthusiastic and has been chanting team songs during most of the Cheetahs’ pre-season friendlies, along with high profile fans like Haizam Su and even Tan’s own five-year-old daughter Clarah.
And talking of pre-season, Hougang have had a really decent one, winning all but a couple of their matches, including a famous 2-1 win over Selangor at Shah Alam Stadium in January and narrow wins over SAFFC and Albirex Niigata (Singapore) on home soil.
Coach Aide Iskandar has not been getting carried away with his team’s first-rate form, however, and insists that the Cheetahs will not take Woodlands lightly.
After all, at the start of last season the team then known as Sengkang Punggol went down at the same stadium 1-2 to bitter adversaries Balestier Khalsa.
And Woodlands are old rivals too, with the pair occupying the bottom two spots on the S.League ladder last year.
Many will be tipping the Rams to be around there again this year, but most believe the Cheetahs will do far better than that, perhaps breaking new ground altogether and winding up in the top half of the table.
The reason for the optimism is largely due to the recruitment of some quality players.
Brazilian newcomer Diego Gama de Oliveira hobbled off before the end of the team’s final trial game against Albirex and could be the one to miss out, as Aide has only four spots available for foreigners on the day.
One of those places seems certain to go to popular midfielder-cum-striker Mamadou Diallo, who is officially signed as a Prime League player again this year as he only turns 21 in July.
But the Brazilian has shown his capabilities with a few good goals already and looks a great signing.
Argentine playmaker Carlos Alberto Delgado looks like holding down a central midfield role, while Japanese defender Fumiya Kobayashi seems a natural to take over from Kenji Arai, who has moved on to Home United this season.
The Cheetahs have Jordan Webb in good touch as well, but Aide was tight-lipped when sleague.com spoke to the coach on Sunday afternoon.
“We trained in the morning today as we were worried about rain in the evening,” he said.
“We are not going to get carried away with our pre-season results, I can tell you that.
“The season is going to be a marathon; every team wants to begin with a win and we are no exception. But we will respect Woodlands, as once we get out on the pitch we are all equal and we have to work hard for the points against every opponent.”
Last season the three meetings with Woodlands produced only one goal each time, with the Rams winning once at Hougang Stadium to emphasise how close this one could be.
Aide said that, apart from Beep Test doubts Shariff Abdul Samat and Fathi Yunus, he has all his players on deck, but is undecided about who to leave out as the squad is so strong this year.
“It’s a headache I’m going to have to get used to,” he said.
One thing Aide was evidently pleased about is the way the fans from United4United have been getting behind his team.
“You used to just hear drums at the stadium, but no more,” remarked the man, himself well-linked with the Red Devils as a coach at their children’s football school here.
“Now all you hear is singing or banter, with a constant buzz from the fans, which is a refreshing change. We really appreciate their support and it has lifted the players a lot.”
With so many players in form and the goals flowing far more freely than they did last year for Hougang, Woodlands may well have their hands full.
But with new foreign talent of their own, like Brazilian striker Leonardo Alexio da Costa, Scottish defender Graham Tatters, Canadian centreback Adrian Butters and German-Lebanese utility player Munier Yassine Raychouni, the Rams could yet test their old rivals going by the catchy new name.
Rams coach R. Balasubramaniam was confident he had a side fit and ready to take on the home team, although he was careful to offer even fewer words than his Hougang counterpart.
“We won’t be talking any nonsense ahead of the game,” he said. “We’ll do our talking tomorrow on the field!”