|Photo: Nigel Chin|
Strugglers under the old label of Sengkang Punggol, the decision to rebrand themselves as Hougang United proved a profitable one as they managed to finish in a more-than-respectable seventh position in the Great Eastern-YEO’S S.League, the highest placing ever in their 14-year history.
It was a major improvement indeed; even in 2009, where they had arguably the best squad of all time consisting of national players in Aide Iskandar, Noh Rahman and Indra Sahdan, they could only finish second from bottom.
Aide, who began his coaching career midway through that campaign, went on to endure another year of pain in 2010 before steering the team into the League Cup final last year.
The fact that they could have finished in the top half of the league table that same term if not for that five-point deduction spoke volumes on how much progress the team had made under him since.
The former national captain has since left for greener pastures, and the big question now is whether new gaffer Nenad Bacina can match the benchmarks his predecessor had set for him.
Bacina, though, would not allow himself to be fazed when asked of his targets at the club’s recent pre-season press conference held at Kovan Hub.
“Whatever I tell you now, at the end of the season you can call me a liar or say that I don’t know how to predict, so I’m not going to point a spot,” he said with his signature touch of humour.
“We’re planning at least to remain at seventh, and of course to move further up if there’s any opportunity during the season.”
His ambition seems to be very much attainable after an encouraging pre-season period, where they remained unbeaten in six friendly games, including two played in a three-day tour of Malaysia.
There, the Cheetahs beat Malaysian Premier League sides UiTM FC and Betaria FC, although Bacina was careful not to play that up too much.
“Winning five and drawing one will give us confidence, definitely, but we have to draw the line between friendlies and official matches, so we’re not going to be complacent,” remarked the Croatian.
“However I’m happy that the attitude and approach to these games has been very professional. The average age of this team is about 25, so they should be experienced enough to handle the pressure.”
The team retained ten players from the 2011 cohort, including Canadian Jordan Webb and Guinean Mamadou Diallo, who has been promoted after three years in the Prime League.
They have also brought in experienced Croatians Ante Barac and Stanislav Vidakovic to complement the duo, with both earning personal recommendations from their new coach Bacina.
Geylang United’s Prime League duo of Hasree Zais and Khayrulhayat Jumat, Balestier midfielders Nurhilmi Jasni and Ridhwan Osman, and former Courts Young Lions trainee Ignatius Ang are other notable additions to the squad this year.
Bacina hopes his players will believe in his football philosophy and give their hearts on the field.
“My philosophy is never to divide the team into the first 11 or 16 players,” said the former Woodlands Wellington coach.
“I want all of them to be capable of playing at the top level. No matter what happens, they should believe that results will come if they play good and attractive football.
“We’ll take things match by match. What I hope is that we can give the big clubs a good fight when they come to our home stadium,” he concluded.
With the departure of Shariff Abdul Samat, Mohd Noor Ali and Fadhil Salim, fullback Lau Meng Meng has been installed as club skipper, with goalkeeper Ridzuan Fatah Hassan as his deputy.
It was perhaps a surprising decision considering the former has little prior experience of leading a team and is not known for being outspoken.
Remarkably, however, Lau revealed a history of leadership that, if brief, does at least exist.
“I was vice-captain for Sengkang Punggol in 2010 and only took the armband in a few Prime League games,” he shared.
“When the management told me last December I’ll be captain, honestly I was quite shocked, but I was also honoured at the same time. It will more or less shape my game, but it shouldn’t be much of a problem as the players know my style of play and they are giving me the support, so I feel at ease.
When quizzed about his hopes for the team, Lau was full of optimism and excitement.
“I hope we can play as well as how we played in our pre-season,” said the 28-year-old.
“The spirit of the team is good, and everyone is getting along well. Of course we’ll lose a few games here and there, but we’ll try to keep the good form throughout the season.”
He also reserved a few words of praise for the loyal Hougang United Supporters’ Club, also better known as the Hougang HOOLs, who turned out for the press conference in force.
“The fans have been great so far,” he remarked.
“It’s good that they’re doing something different from what other fan clubs do.”
If Hougang succeeded in 2011 by being different, there will be no doubt that Bacina, Lau and others at the club will strive to build on that and continue to surprise in the coming season. - (SOURCE)