The Unofficial Hougang United FC Supporters Blog

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Bill-ing a united Hougang

Justin Zhuang

Bill Ng is building a community by empowering people and making sure the bills are paid at his football club.

Photo: Zakaria Zainal
Let’s get this out of the way: Bill Ng may have withdrew his offer to takeover Scottish football giants Glasgow Rangers, but the businessman says he has not given up hope. The man, who has been making the news with a bid for the financially troubled club and suddenly dropping out of the race when he was seen a a frontrunner, says he is bidding his time to see how the sale of the club develops.

Meanwhile, it is business as usual at Hougang United, the football club in Singapore that he took over as its chairman in the middle of 2009. Once perennial cellar-dwellers in the S-League for over a decade, the club’s fortunes have transformed since Bill took over. It is now a mid-table club that reached the Singapore League Cup final last year, and more than once during our interview, he declares Hougang will fight for top honours next season. Currently, the team is 8th out of 13 teams in the league.

The improved performance on the pitch has also been matched by what’s happening around it. Hougang United’s home is in Hougang Stadium, which sits inside a public housing estate. On most days, the stadium’s stands are empty while residents fill the tracks, jogging and walking to keep fit. But on match days, this is reversed, as residents turn up in orange and black, the club’s official colours, all ready to support their team, The Cheetahs.

Photo: Ernest Lim
Hougang’s residents didn’t always have a football team to rally around. When the stadium was built in 1987, it was simply a sports facility for the neighbourhood. It was only two years after Singapore formed its own professional soccer league in 1996, the S-League, that a team was assigned to adopt Hougang as its home, Marine Castle United Football Club. Over the next decade, Hougang’s residents found little to cheer as the club struggled to climb out of the bottom of the league and changed its identity to Sengkang Marine then Sengkang Punggol Football Club.

By the time Bill took over as chairman in 2009, the club had a reported debt of $1.3 million dollars. Bill had come in with a reputation of buying over another financially-troubled football club, Tiong Bahru United, and successfully restructuring it, bringing it from the third division of the nation’s semi-professional league to the first. However, this success story was also accompanied by people wary of his motivations. During an interview with Singapore newspaper TODAY in December 2010, he said, “I came into football because I was influenced by the love my two sons have for the sport and I have to admit I’m not a football man. When I came in, I didn’t even know what the offside rule was and my sons had to teach me.”

Throughout our interview, it was clear that Bill saw his job as yet another opportunity to successfully restructure a company — it’s what he does for a living in his private equity firm Financial Frontiers. He talks at length at how he has tried to get rid of excesses in the club and find new forms of revenue. To make sure the club would be self-sustaining, he also hired people whom were not necessarily were football fans, but knew how to run it like a financial institution. At one point, he even throws out his sales pitch: “All businesses are good businesses. It only fails because of the human element.” And it is this that Bill has attributed for the club’s turnaround. “Money is of course the necessary condition for running the club, but it doesn’t mean pumping in fresh money is sufficient, you need the people and the passion,” he says.

This he found in a batch of young players and a new coach, ex-national team footballer Aide Iskandar, who was replaced this season (2012) by Nenad Bacina. As changes were made on the pitch, Bill also worked hard to reach out to the wider community.

Last year, the club was rebranded Hougang United, giving the new owner an opportunity to start afresh. It also allowed the club to forge an identity with its stadium and surrounding neighbourhood of the same name. The club also began working with the neighbouring town councils to promote the club’s matches to the residents, and schedule of upcoming games started appearing on the lift lobbies of the nearby public housing estates. Besides bringing in people close to the stadium, the club also invited orphanages, old folks’ home and nearby schools to attend their games.

Perhaps the most significant outreach program for the club has been establishing an official fan club (now unofficial), the “Hougang HOOLs” (Hougang-Only-One-Love). What started as a grassroots initiative by friends of then coach Aide was quickly recognised by Hougang United as its official satellite organisation.

The club gave these fans the resources to organise events and promote the club as Bill felt it was crucial for the resource-strapped club to tap on the people’s passion. “We are only good at certain things. By giving these fans rewards and resources, they help to promote the club and they are the experts, helping us manage our websites,” he says. “Suddenly, all these guys are empowered over night.”

Photo: Chris Harvey
Over the last two seasons, the Hougang HOOLs have built up a reputation for being a bunch of passionate fans. They stand and sing throughout the game — a rare sight for a league that struggles to get supporters despite being a football-crazy city. Most Singaporeans would rather stay up late to watch their dose of European football games on television rather than turn up at their neighbourhood stadium to catch a live S-League game. In a way, Bill wanted to acquire a European club like Rangers so that he could bridge this disparity, and “fast forward” Hougang United and the Singapore footballing community to Western standards. If he had successfully acquired Rangers, he imagined there would be exchanges of players and staff and even access to its 5.5 million fans, about the population of Singapore, he stresses.

This dream of uniting communities of people via football all started with the now oft-heard tale of how the man first fell in love with the game after watching Rangers win the 1972 European Cup Winners’ Cup. “It was really gorgeous, seeing the crowd cheer, the ‘wow’ factor really registered for years,” says the man in his 50s. “Football can bring people from all walks of life together, it’s a sports for the masses.”

At this point, Hougang United is still struggling to convince people in its community to fill even the 3,500 seater stadium during its matches. However, Bill is convinced all he needs is time. This year, in June, the club is also holding its first-ever Junior Challenge Trophy soccer tournament for students under-10 and under-12, a way for the club to spot new talent and introduce itself to young children.

The club also has plans to open a cafe and pub just outside the stadium to bring live to this quiet neighbourhood.

Bill’s original plan when he took over the club was to be an interim chairman to get it back in the black again, he reveals, but watching Hougang United grow and seeing the community’s response over his close to three years with it has convinced him to stay for the long-term. And for a very brief moment during the interview, Bill shows a glimpse of how Hougang United means more than just a financial restructuring challenge to him. Now, he just needs to convince the rest of the community to unite around his football club too. (SOURCE)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Partners / Sponsors