Scott Ollerenshaw: Saving Sabah FA, the sleeping giant of M’sian Football


When I was first approached to write a bi-weekly article about topics involving Malaysian football for this website, I promised myself that anything about Sabah football was taboo. Given my love for Sabah and history with Sabah FA as a foreigner in the 90s, I did not want to be accused of bias. But guess what? Given what has been happening in the “Land Below The Wind” during the off-season, I feel compelled to now broach this subject.

Yes I admit it, I love Sabah and I am proud to have lived in Kota Kinabalu with my wife and 2 kids for the past 20 years. Sabah has changed a lot over the past 20 years. For example, Kota Kinabalu has been afforded city status and yes, the traffic is at times frustrating but we still have our beautiful islands within 10 minutes from the mainland, our famous Mount Kinabalu and not forgetting our amazing resorts & golf courses.

From my perspective, all that is needed to make Sabah perfect in every way is a football team that can make the Sabahans proud. A team that is competing in the Super League, mixing it with the JDT’s, Kelantan’s & Selangor’s of Malaysian Football and playing in front of full houses with the famous Likas Roar coming back to Likas Stadium.

Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Except an appearance in the 2004 Malaysia Cup Final under Peter Butler and promotion to the Super League in 2010 under Gary Philips, success has been relatively absent for Sabah over the last 15 years.

The fact that fans still constantly talk about the teams of 94, 95, 96, 97 and 98 on social media is an indication that success has been minimal for Sabah football in recent times. As good as those times were, it’s now time for the fans to have a team that they can be proud of right here, right now; not having to talk about the past to make them feel good about their beloved Sabah Rhinos.

Coaches; both local & foreign have come & gone over the years. They arrived in Kota Kinabalu with big plans & big statements of how they were going to transform the team and bring big success. Sadly, most left fewer than 12 months later, with deeper pockets but zero achievements. And then, another coach would arrive and then another. An exception to this and to be fair, both Peter Butler & Gary Philips did have fleeting success in Sabah though both were removed from their post for whatever reason, before they had a chance to build on it.

And suddenly, late in 2014, we had the arrival of George O’Callaghan. Again, we heard the same old statements promising success. However, there were many red flags from the outset. He was 35 years-old, had a journeyman career at best in the UK, no coaching licence & never coached or managed before. He had little knowledge of Malaysian football, local players and had a dodgy past with DUI in the UK. It was hard to see just what positives George brought to the job.

Signing a quality player in El Hadji Diouf was a step in the right direction and I have no doubts that Diouf will perform with distinction for Sabah in 2015. However, this good move was blighted a few weeks later, when George, without being aware of the rules, tried to sign Tales Dos Santos from a second division team in Thailand. Of course, his registration was rejected. Then we had the farcical last-minute breakdown in negotiations with AFC player Srecko Mitrovic, leaving them with less than 48 hours to find and sign a suitable AFC player. Having no knowledge of local players, George had to hope that he would lucky with signing players who were not wanted by their previous teams. Only time will tell how these players perform in 2015.

Having said that, George O’Callaghan is now history, based on the reports we’ve seen over the past few days. What’s important is the next appointment. Datuk TC Goh re-associating himself with Sabah Football is a massive plus point and let’s hope his involvement is for the long haul so he can help bring some long-term planning & common sense to football in Sabah. If anything, the last 15 years has proved that success will not come from short-term planning. Sabah FA need to appoint a coach who can implement a medium & long-term plan that is sustainable and promotes longevity. Once this coach is appointed, they need to support him no matter what and stick to the medium & long-term plan. I’m sorry but hiring a new coach every year and recruiting rejected players will not going to result in a successful football club.

From my perspective this plan will include,

1) Realistic performance-related goals for senior team in 2015
2) Performance-related goals for senior team (2016 & 2017)
3) Recruitment of both Sabahans who are not in the team and quality West Malaysian players who can improve the team from 2016 onwards. These players must be identified by mid-2015.
4) Training Facilities, injury treatment & prevention, dietary requirements must all be improved massively.
5) Youth Development Programs; for example, Junior Leagues to be set up all over the state in order to produce state players for the future.
6) Marketing & PR plan; Improving the team’s relationship with the fans, including school visits by players.

This is just the tip of the iceberg but it is imperative that a sustainable long-term system is put in place by a coach who Sabah FA trusts for a minimum 5 year period. No matter what happens in 2015, the coach & his staff must be given the time to implement his methodology and see the project through to the end. Football is no different to the business world, you can’t just run a club year by year with no detailed planning and expect success. A successful youth development program and a strategic recruitment policy is amazingly neglected by many Malaysian teams.

Alex Ferguson was backed by Manchester United during difficult times and look at his amazing record. More recently, Socceroos’ coach Ange Postepogolou took time to implement his philosophies but suddenly, the Socceroos are playing a style of football not seen for a long time at the ongoing Asian Cup.

Once Sabah FA appoint the next coach, they need to back him no matter what and give him the time to bring the success that the fans are craving for. Datuk TC Goh is a successful businessman. Lets hope his next coaching appointment is just as successful and that the sleeping giant of Malaysian Football is revived.