The biggest football competition in Southeast Asia is almost upon us and with only less than two days before the big kick-off, everyone is working around the clock to ensure that they can lift the AFF Championship trophy. It’s no different for Malaysia and in Tan Cheng Hoe as the head coach heading in to the 2018 edition, he has of course been there and done it, albeit in a slightly different capacity.
Malaysian fans and pundits alike always hark back to the glory days from eight years ago when the Malayan Tigers emerged victorious in a two-legged final of the against Indonesia. After seven failed attempts previously, Malaysia were the best in the region in their eighth assault on the most prized football trophy in ASEAN.
Cheng Hoe was of course the assistant to Datuk K. Rajagopal as the duo combined to mastermind a magnificent triumph that still get its light of the day till today. Coming back from a disastrous start with a 5-1 reverse at the hands of Indonesia in the opening group match, to winning the tournament is no mean feat.
Four editions later, the student has become the master and Cheng Hoe will be the one at the forefront to navigate Malaysia’s way to repeating the feat of his mentor. The 39th Malaysia national team head coach sat down for an exclusive interview with Goal to reminisce about the past and divulge the challenges for the 2018 team.
“The experience in AFF Suzuki Cup today is totally different from 2010,” Cheng Hoe told Goal. “At that moment I was the assistant coach. It was a very good memory for me and at the same time, we created history. The first time that Malaysia won the cup. We united the whole of Malaysia and changed the Malaysian football. Before we can’t see many fans wearing the national jersey but after that we saw a lot. It’s something to be proud of.
“Of course the journey not only then as it started in 2009 when we won the Sea Games. 2018 will be a different scenario now that I’m the head coach and different set of players, only Khairul (Fahmi Che Mat) and Norshahrul (Idlan Talaha) remained. Malaysian football haven’t been doing well in the past couple of years and hopefully, this coming tournament can give the country another boost.
“If you see any part of the world, when the country win big tournaments, something change in the country. It encourages people to start taking up the sport. But unlike 2010, we need continuity to move to the next level of football. It’s not a one day job and it takes big investment to reach a new level.”
It was his time at Kedah, his hometown team between 2014 to 2017 that Cheng Hoe really made his name in his own right. As head coach of The Red Eagles, he took them from the Premier League and into the Super League. In the two and a half seasons with Kedah, he also guided them to success in the 2016 Malaysia Cup.
The playing style of his Kedah team defined him as a coach and made him a neutral’s favourite as his side were always very pleasing on the eye in their style of play. The likes of Baddrol Bakhtiar, Liridon Krasniqi, Syazwan Zainon and Rizal Ghazali all flourished in the short passing, possession-based type of football that Cheng Hoe demanded.
With the national team and the 23 players named in the final squad for the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup, very few would argue that man for man, it’s the best Malaysia could offer. Some notable names likes La’Vere Corbin-Ong and Ignacio Insa is missing from the list but what Cheng Hoe preaches is a more holistic approach for the squad.
“It’s almost similar to what I did in Kedah but because with national team, there’s time constraint. We don’t have much time to work with players. We try to keep a lot of ball possession, every game we don’t just sit back to defend. Most of the time, we try to go on the attack and as you can see even against Lebanon and Kyrgyzstan, you can see a lot of positives.
“I think the environment, the spirit and the harmony of the team, are the keywords. Of course discipline is number one in the team. So far, I see this group of players working very hard. You can see the players enjoying training, on the pitch and off the pitch.
“The main objective is that I want everybody who can work together because team spirit is the most important. But of course sometimes in football you of course need good technical players in the mix as well. Sometimes it’s also about the quality individuals who can be the difference. In this group of players, we have quality and we work well together.”
When the now 50-year-old Cheng Hoe became a man in demand after his exploits with Kedah and a return to the national team set-up was on the cards, few would have predicted the manner in which it came.
It was considered a step down for him even though he held a far bigger responsibility than the one he assume at club level, all because he was once again named as the assistant coach to Portuguese Eduardo ‘Nelo’ Vingada, who came with a big portfolio but delivered very little.
A winless 2017 curtailed Vingada’s time with the national team and Cheng Hoe was finally given the opportunity to take full control of the senior team. And the Kedah-born who now resides in Penang, knew that he had to change things to cut out the lingering doubts and uncertainties that came with the reign of Vingada.
“We didn’t win any games last year, so there were a lot of negatives, with the fans not happy with the performance of the players. I have made some changes by bringing in good potential young players who can suit the team and work with my philosophy of playing. Although in the team you still need some senior players to guide because young players need to learn at international level.
“We’ve played nine matches including the match against Lebanon. So far there’s improvement in the team and we’ve identified almost 80% of the 11 players that will play against Cambodia. But like any coaches around the world, until the last minute, we are still finding one or two positions that we need to stabilise or strengthen.”
Since taking over in late December after back-to-back defeats at the hands of DPR Korea saw the departure of Vingada, Cheng Hoe has presided over nine matches involving the national team with far more friendly matches than what his predecessor would have liked.
Now after nine matches in charges, Cheng Hoe’s records stands at nine matches played, five wins, one draw and three defeats including one in the final game of the 2019 Asian Cup qualifiers. One of those wins included a triumph over Thursday’s opponent in Cambodia, back in September.
Malaysia will start their Suzuki Cup campaign with a Group A fixture with against Cambodia at the Olympic Stadium with the 1-3 win achieved after an inspired second half performance, still fresh in the memories. Shahrel Fikri’s introduction after the half time break as the catalyst for Malaysia’s comeback win.
For the first time in the history of the tournament, countries will be playing their group matches in a home and away format with Malaysia going away to Cambodia and Vietnam, intersect by home games against Laos and Myanmar.
The target for the national team set by the Football Association of Malaysia president Datuk Hamidin bin Mohd Amin is at least a place in the final and that is a high being set for Cheng Hoe what with the team failing to qualify out of the group stage just two years ago.
As one of the only few individuals in Malaysia with a pro coaching licence, Cheng Hoe is under no illusion the expectations that has been heaped on him. That said, like any coach worth his salt, he’s only taking the next 90 minutes into consideration and that starts against a Keisuke Honda inspired Cambodia side on 8 November.
“We have to focus one game at a time but my target is to do well. We need to qualify for the semi-final or final. Definitely all the players have to be ready.
“This time the format is advantageous to us because we got two home matches to boost the motivation of the players. But the two away matches because of the tight schedules can be a bit worrisome. But overall I think the new format is good because the players get to enjoy playing at home and the fans can also come to support the team.
“For me, we cannot underestimate Cambodia and Laos. All the teams have good preparations. The first two matches is very important for us to focus and get six points.”
But it is not all plain sailing for him despite the many positive results achieved in recent matches. Zaquan Adha Abdul Razak is the nominated captain of the team but the experienced striker is going through a very testing period having only notched one goal in his last five outings for the national side.
There’s also notable absentees due to injury with one particular position being of major concern for Cheng Hoe. The dependable Matthew Davies will miss out on the tournament completely and he’s the one that the coach would dearly love to have in the squad.
Over the course of last week after beating Maldives 3-0, Cheng Hoe also had to make the tough decision to drop Nor Azam Azih after he was deemed by the doctors to not be completely free of injury. A difficult decision considering how lacking the team is from a creative central midfield point of view.
“He (Zaquan) had been with me since March and I know him well. He has a lot of character, he leads the team and organise a lot things in the team. Even the young players coming in respect him. Every coach has their own idea about any player.
“Zaquan may not be scoring goals but he did well. He played the way I wanted from him and I think he’s been doing a fantastic job. When we lose the ball, he’s always the first to press and the others follow.
“The one that we will miss is Matt Davies because at Pahang you can see that he has a great understanding with Sumareh. Because in terms of attacking and defensive, both work very well. Other than that we have the players in all the positions.
“I don’t want players who play only one match and then out for the tournament. We need only players who are 100% because I need to be fair to everyone. Even if a player is good, if he’s carrying an injury, no point keeping him in the team,” he said.
There’s no doubt that he carries the hope of the nation in the month-long tournament played across nine different locations. The soft-spoken Tan Cheng Hoe will be riding on a crest of renewed confidence in the team and with a little bit of luck, may yet replicate the triumph of eight years ago, when he was part of a Malaysia team in the Suzuki Cup. The whole of Malaysia await in bated breath.