Hougang United left it until very late before grabbing the lead in their Great Eastern-YEO’S S.League match against Woodlands Wellington on Monday night at Hougang Stadium.
Fortunately for them, Mamadou Diallo’s strike five minutes from time was enough to send their highly vocal supporters on their way home, happy with the 1-0 win and the three points.
In seasons past the two clubs have often struggled to move away from the lower rungs of the ladder, but the home team offered plenty of promise that they would avert that fate, going by their pre-season efforts.
Woodlands, by contrast, had done little to flatter in the lead-up to this match, but by the end of it they had come mighty close to getting at least a point, perhaps even three, from their visit to the northeast.
What stopped them was some poor finishing in the second half, coupled with the loss of centreback Graham Tatters to a direct red card on 68 minutes after a tackle just inside the penalty area that referee Sukhbir Singh adjudged a foul committed by the last defender.
As it happened, while Diallo had been making his way towards goal before coming down under Tatters’ challenge, the ball was then handed to Brazilian Diego Gama de Oliveira, who blasted his penalty kick well over the bar.
“He never looked like scoring it, I thought,” opined beaten Rams coach R. Balasubramaniam after the game.
“It’s been said we will finish eleventh this season. I think from what you saw this evening we’re going to do a lot better than that!”
It is true that the Rams appeared to have the measure of both Oliveira and Diallo for long periods of the game, with Tatters and Sahairi Ramri, alongside Adrian Butters, giving the talented Cheetahs’ front-runners very little latitude.
It is also true to say that the midfield was scored evenly as well, with Munier Raychouni and Ali Imran Lomri putting in big games for Woodlands.
Hougang, though, kept on plugging away after the unfortunate penalty miss, and got right on top as the ten men of Woodlands found it harder and harder to overcome the loss of Tatters, with a few near misses from the home side before the winner finally arrived.
Aide Iskandar pushed Japanese defender Fumiya Kobayashi forward and sent on the young duo of Basit Abdul Hamid and Emmeric Ong near the end, moves that gave the Rams something to think about as the game wound down.
The first half had been an even affair, punctuated by a plethora of free kicks, mostly won by Woodlands, whose midfield surprisingly seemed to have the upper hand at times.
Hougang goalkeeper Fadhil Salim needed to be alert on 39 minutes, for instance, when he raced off his line to deny the Rams’ own towering Brazilian Leonardo Alexio da Costa.
The second half provided an improved Hougang performance, though, with Carlos Delgado going close with a free kick and Mohd Noor Ali skimming a long-range shot from the left just wide of the right-hand post.
But the Rams had their moments too, with Navin Nigel Vanu ignoring a free man on his left to go it alone on 54 minutes, only to place his effort well over the bar.
Vanu, however, had once again forced Fadhil to race out and boot clear two minutes earlier, and had appeals for a penalty turned down on 65 after tangling with Ratna Suffian close to goal.
Woodlands did get the ball in the net once in the first half, too, only for the raised flag of the assistant to spoil their celebrations.
In the end, though, it was the dismissal of Tatters that was the turning point in the game.
Diallo livened up considerably after that and went close a number of times, as the Rams defence was clearly stretched.
The Guinean fired just wide ten minutes from time, while Rams substitute Goh Swee Swee made a swift counterattacking run a few minutes later, only to see his effort deflected for a corner.
With the lively Basit giving some problems for the Rams out wide, another substitute, Sobrie Mazelan, who had replaced Duncan David Elias for the last half-hour, had a hand in the winning goal.
He got through on the left and tried his luck from 15 yards out, only to see Butters get his head to the ball, which allowed it to fall kindly for Diallo to nod home from four yards.
And that left Aide relieved as he earned his first competitive win as Hougang coach on the first try.
“The important thing today was we got the three points,” ventured the former Singapore skipper.
“They do look a better team than last year, Woodlands, I have to say, so Bala has done well.”
Aide explained that Jordan Webb had suffered a groin injury at training and was the one foreigner to miss out on this occasion.
While he was happy, Bala clearly was not.
“I thought the tackle was clean by Tatters and we’ll be looking at the video very closely”, he said.
“If it shows we are correct we will appeal against the red card.
“Everyone played well today, we could have won it, but we’ll be ready to win our first home game this time next week against Albirex (Niigata (Singapore)).
“If we don’t have Tatters we have enough cover, so we should still be alright,” Bala said.
Although Woodlands went close it could well have ended 2-0 in the last minute, it must be said.
From Basit’s excellent cross from the right, which Oliveira allowed to go past him into the centre, the impressive Azhar Sairudin sent a sweet volley goalwards that Amos Boon did well to tip over the bar.
The stands seemed fuller than they have been for some time, and the open seats on the popular side were well filled as news has quickly spread that the Cheetahs are worth watching this season.
This was a nervous start, perhaps, but they managed some attractive football nevertheless, and a first win under their belts will give many at the club a warm glow.