Dez Corkhill: How Tan Cheng Hoe used youth to revive Kedah’s footballing fortunes

0
Photo Credit: Asiana.my
Enough of the negative vibes surrounding Malaysian football. Let’s celebrate a win for one of the good guys of the game!
 
There are few more decent men in football than Tan Cheng Hoe, and Kedah’s thrilling success in the 90th Malaysia Cup final played at the end of last month was a personal triumph for the Kedah-born Coach. In the previous two seasons Cheng Hoe had gone tantalizingly close to guiding the “Red Eagles” to the glory that is still associated with the Malaysia Cup, only for Kedah to fall at the semi final stage in 2014, and the final in 2015. He finally got his hands on the trophy for the first time as a coach following a tense penalty shoot-out victory over Selangor.
 
Photo Credit: Asiana.my
Photo Credit: Asiana.my

This was a win not only for one of Malaysian football’s good guys, but also a huge vindication of his tacit support for a developmental programme introduced in Kedah over the past 3-4 seasons. Initially supported by the then Mentari Besar of Kedah, Dato’ Seri Mukhriz Mahatir, Cheng Hoe has fashioned a team in the right way. An attacking style provided by a team with well-selected foreigners, allied to a willingness – even a desire – to promote players from within Kedah’s developmental squads. In a week when Malaysia SEA Games project Coach Frank Bernhardt expressed the opinion that he hoped the players who are in the squad for the 2017 SEA Games might sign for teams with whom they will get game time, then he may well have had Kedah in his thoughts.

A winner of the Malaysia with Kedah as a player, Cheng Hoe has shown his willingness since his appointment midway through the 2014 season to trust in players who have come through Kedah’s youth system in even the biggest of games. In the starting XI that triumphed at Shah Alam, three players – goalkeeping hero Ifwat Akmal, and used subs Farhan Roslan and Abdul Halim Saari – are recent products of Kedah’s strong youth development set-up. Indeed, Ifwat is still registered with the President’s Cup team and to trust a 19-year old in goal on such a big occasion was a huge statement of faith.
Photo Credit: Asiana.my
Photo Credit: Asiana.my

Two others – centre-back Syawel Nordin and influential midfielder Amirul Hisyam – were brought back to the State in the close season from the Harimau Muda set-up, and both played roles both in Kedah’s Malaysia Cup win and third placed position in the Malaysia Super League. When you consider that recent International debutants Rizal Ghazali and Syazwan Zainon have also been part of the under 21 set-up having been “rescued” from stuttering Northern neighbor, Perlis, and add to that core the likes of under 21 Graduates Syafiq Ahmad, Hanif Dzahir and Azri Mardzuki plus the more experienced “Kedah until I die” players like Baddrol Bakhtiar and Khairul Helmi, and the story becomes an even more impressive representation of the work going on developing players behind the scenes in the Northern State.

It’s no accident that all these players have “suddenly” become available and good enough. Examination of what has been happening behind the scenes at Alor Setar tells us that this victory has been the result of stable management, good planning, an aggressively promoted youth development project, and the willingness of the coach to trust in the products of that development.
Photo Credit: Asiana.my
Photo Credit: Asiana.my

Eighteen months ago, I was given sight of an internal report made to Kedah FA in which a vision outlining the production and promotion of local players with the ability to regularly compete and win trophies was described. Key to the methodology was a pyramid structure and development pathway for locally scouted and recruited players to move from the youth teams to the senior team. Several other elements were outlined in the report to ensure that this could be achieved, not least of which was an internal structure containing far-sighted administration, allied to educated Coaches and supportive parents/guardians all of which could augment the talent of the players.

 
Execute such a system and the report projected a conveyor belt of players capable of graduating to the senior team. Importantly, mention was made of the need for consistent and fair remuneration, and clarity to any bonus structure due to players and staff to enable them to be able to focus on the work in hand. Surrounding all this was a statement that a culture based on “strong morality” was to be ingrained into the DNA of the club.
Photo Credit: www.sports247.my
Photo Credit: www.sports247.my

Having been aware of this report (made by Technical Director and under 21 Coach, Ian Gillan), I followed Kedah’s progress this season with a particular interest in Cheng Hoe’s deployment of younger players. The season didn’t start well. Cheng Hoe had to inculcate a glut of new players signed from the Harimau Muda project and new star signing, Kahe, into a team that had finished 2015 as Runner up in the Malaysia Cup, and 5th in the Super League. There was also uncertainty surrounding the financing of Kedah’s team for the season. So perhaps it was no surprise that the 2016 season started in less than fabulous circumstances.

 
Inconsistency be-devilled “The Canaries” as the new team won just twice and scored just 11 goals in their first 10 League matches. A better indication of their potential came in the FA Cup where their run to the semi-final saw them sweep past FAM League side Megah Murni, survive a nervy penalty shoot-out in Kelantan, and then get the better of Sabah in a 2-legged Quarter Final before coming head-to-head with the giants of the Malaysian game, Johor Darul Takzim (JDT). Here’s where we first saw the potential of Cheng Hoe’s team.
 
Photo Credit: Asiana.my
Photo Credit: Asiana.my

In two stunning semi final matches, Kedah’s young charges pushed JDT’s all stars all the way only to lose out to a last minute goal at the Larkin Stadium for a 3-4 aggregate defeat. But for the likes of Farhan Roslan, Abdul Halim, Syazwan Tajuddin and Osman Yusof – pitched into that cauldron as a first half substitute – it was an indication that they could mix it with the best in Malaysia. It’s also no coincidence that Abdul Halim had benefitted from a 5-week training stint with Australian club, Perth Glory, and Osman Yusof had spent a similar stint at Cardiff City – two of nine placements made at these clubs over the past 3 seasons, all organised by under 21 Coach Gillan who described the players as “unrecognisable” after returning from their foreign training opportunity.

July 16th was a turning point for Cheng Hoe. A 0-5 League mauling in Johor signalled a tweak in philosophy. Amirul Hisyam’s dynamism and passing range saw him regularly displace Amar Rohidan in the heart of midfield, whist Ifwat was promoted from the under 21’s and given his first taste of action in goal. The spectacular introduction of New Zealand International Shane Smeltz as a replacement for Kahe gave the team a new focal point, and the results began to improve.
Photo Credit: Asiana.my
Photo Credit: Asiana.my

July saw three wins, a draw and a loss in addition to the lessons learned from the Larkin Stadium battering. Kedah registered six wins (four in the League and two in the Malaysia Cup) a draw and just 1 defeat in August whilst September produced four straight victories with 13 goals scored, and just two conceded. In all, Kedah suffered just one defeat in 13 matches from the middle of August until the Malaysia Cup final – a run that sent The Canaries into the final against Selangor full of confidence. All with a team filled with young(er), Kedah-trained players making significant contributions.

Success doesn’t “just” happen. As the Kedah technical report said: “Fail to Plan, Plan to fail.” More than anything,Kedah’s improving season illustrated how a stable organization, with a belief in recruiting, developing and promoting young talent as a part of a coherent strategy can help reap on-field dividends. Johor Darul Takzim have shown the way in most aspects of football in malaysia, but Kedah – under the guidance of a Coach who has a history of trusting and carefully nurturing young players – are the arch-example of how such a philosophy can be successful. A direct and tangible outcome of a proactive and well-directed development team using aids such as video analysis and individually catered training sessions.
 
Photo Credit: ESPN FC
Photo Credit: ESPN FC

But the development team needed a coach who believed in their products, and in Tan Cheng Hoe, Kedah have a coach who has a history of trusting young players to do men’s work. He was assistant to K Rajagopal when Malaysia’s then young team won the 2010 Suzuki Cup. And to ensure that the “culture” of Kedah was adhered to, players from Kedah’s history are entrusted with guiding the next generation. Ian Gillan – the architect of many of the behind-the-scenes developments – had one of the famous double-treble team, Victor Andrag, as his assistant, and Fauzi Nan as Coach of the under 19’s. Kedah’s development Coaches will have an ingrained respect for Kedah’s historical past because they were a key part of it! Tan Cheng Hoe was part of the Kedah team that won the Malaysia Cup in 1990. He’s ingrained in it as well.

 
Additionally – and significantly – the recruitment of former Perth striker Smeltz was another event that was not an accident. “Deal with reputable, respected local and International Agents”, recommended the TD’s report. Smeltz came from Sydney FC with a stellar CV, and a reputation as a “solid professional”. He delivered in style (apart from his “Panenka” fail in the penalty shoot-out). Indeed, all Kedah’s foreign signings have added something other than just on-field football skills. Kosovo’s Liridon Krasniqi illustrates how football can be a truly beautiful art form; Korea’s Bang Seung-Hwan is a by-word for consistency, whilst Thiago’s loan spell from Felda proved to be inspired talent spotting from the Coach.
Photo Credit: Asiana.my
Photo Credit: Asiana.my

But this is Malaysian sports where political influence is never far from the surface. There’s been a new regime in place in Alor Setar since February, but budgets for 2017 are uncertain. As we go to press, Tan Cheng Hoe is still unsure of his future, and Development head, Gillan, is believed to be heading back to Australia having been with the State since being brought over as assistant to Dave Mitchell in 2014.

 
The hope is that Kedah’s new hierarchy will retain the philosophy that has returned the Red Eagles to near the summit of Malaysian football. It’s important they build on that work as the sport needs teams able to compete with all-conquering JDT. If they don’t 2016 – which was a validation of three years work on and off the pitch for Kedah – could well just become another part of the Red Eagles’ famous past, rather than the start of a fabulous future.