By Suresh Nair
IF there’re kampong-styled fairy-tales to be told in the S-League, just ponder over the “Cinderella” club, Hougang United Football Club.
The north-east coast club, paradoxically situated in a fiery hot-spot political opposition constituency, has made heads turn since the two big ‘B’s – chairman Bill Ng and coach Balaguraman – came to the fold for the new season.
Suddenly, the much under-rated club, which usually struggles in the relegation perimeters, is the talk of town as they’re now ambitiously aiming to finish in the top half of the table. And rather unbelievably, hoping to qualify for the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) Cup, both for the first time.
It’s now a rousing role-model example of how the proverbial “blood, sweat and tears” from management to players, not forgetting their rip-roaring fans, can produce exciting results, if everyone puts their shoulders behind the wheel for a common goal of lifting the image of the Great Eastern-Yeo’s S-League.
And, yes, to also fire up heartlander club-fever, in a controversial season for the FAS (Football Association of Singapore), which has been marred by constitutional crisis.
“Yes, dreams sometimes come true if the team gives their very best shot. This could be the biggest month in the club’s history,” said Balagumaran. “For us to be in this position, the team has done very well. It is a tough league and we have just assembled the players together for the first year.”
Balaguraman is hailed as one of the rising younger-generation coaches and he polished up his coaching skills when he assisted (national coach) V. Sundramoorthy with the LionsXII to win the Malaysia Super League (MSL) title in 2013 and at (Malaysian Premier League club) Negri Sembilan in 2014.
Just come by the Hougang Sadium, which is the home ground to the Cheetahs (Hougang’s nickname) and you get an inspiring feel of the changes with the club making significant improvements. Hougang have already installed leather bucket seats in the two dugouts.
They have also acquired the Globus EuroGoal ball shooting machine which can deliver shots up to 140kmh or crosses with different trajectories and any desired spin effect. In the pipeline, too, are plans to refurbish the dressing rooms to include bucket seats and a jacuzzi for the home team, while four containers will be converted into a meeting room and a recreation room, all with approval by Sport Singapore.
The Cheetahs are believed to be the first S-League club to make such major longer-term improvements to their home stadium and there’s a genuine feel, especially among the management and fans, that the team can go for higher goals, once they set their home in right order.
“I’ve been a pragmatic dreamer and I take great thrill in teaching the youngsters at Hougang that if they give their hearts and souls over 90 minutes in the field of play and during training sessions, they can achieve the impossible,” said Balaguraman. “Here we are challenging for an AFC Cup spot. We are not there yet. We need to still put in a lot of hard work and luck also plays a part.”
Never in their six-year history as the Cheetahs, or even in their previous incarnations as Sengkang Punggol, Paya Lebar Punggol, Sengkang Marine or even Marine Castle United, have Hougang United managed to lift a single piece of silverware.
For Balaguraman, qualifying for the AFC Cup is like striking the big lottery, to finish as the second highest-ranked local side (which comes with qualification for next season’s AFC Cup) is just heating up.
Realistically, three teams (Hougang, Home United and Geylang International) are still in the mix, with Hougang holding their fate in their own hands. They currently hold a three-point advantage over the other two, with Geylang having played a game more.
The equation is simple for the Cheetahs – win their final four games and the AFC Cup spot will be theirs, but, of course, it is easier said than done.
“To finish in the top half and qualify for the AFC Cup would be a huge milestone for a club, always branded as the underdogs,” said Balaguraman. “It’s at the back of our minds, but with four games to go, we want to live in the moment and take one game at a time.”
The club has a group of supporters known as the HOOLS (Hougang Only One Love). They’re ranked by the S-League as one of the best fan-based clubs.
Much as they don’t blow their own trumpets, the also had a fair share of “marquee players” in the earlier days like Grant Holt (formerly Norwich City), Michael Currie (formerly Queens Park Rangers) and Kim See Man (former South Korea youth international).
Hougang has also scored massive community points off-the-field. They’re the first sports organisation to step up and commit $50,000 to cancer-stricken gymnastics coach Zhu Xiaoping and her family. The 56-year-old made headlines when she led the national rhythmic gymnastics team to gold at the South-east Asia (SEA) Games on home soil last year, despite battling Stage Four cancer.
“We want to show Singaporeans that we want to be a big community club with a very big heart,” said Chairman Bill Ng. “Football aside, we must play our role in community and nation-building.”
This is not the first time the Cheetahs have extended a helping hand. Since 2012, the club raised more than $100,000 for former Singapore striker S. Anthonysamy, who is paralysed from the neck down after a freak injury during a friendly against Selangor in 1996.
Last year, they also launched the HGFC Scholarship, a $1 million initiative to support and facilitate the academic development of young non-professional football talent. It is open to all tertiary students – Singapore citizens aged 16 to 23 – who play competitive football at any level of a competition affiliated with the Football Association of Singapore (National Football League (NFL), Island-Wide League (IWL), Centre of Excellence (COE), Women’s League and Prime League).
Under businessman Bill Ng’s leadership, the financial thumbs-up is on the rise. Hougang made a profit in excess of $2 million and they’re well in the black, a situation virtually unheard of in an S-League that has struggled to rake in the sponsorship dollar or convince fans to flock to stadiums.
The Cheetahs, on record, appear to be the most profitable in the SLeague. They are self-sufficient, which is almost unimaginable in a 21-year-old professional league where most clubs are dependent on FAS subsidies.
Depending on their ability to hit pre-set targets, each S-League club can receive up to $1 million in subsidies from the FAS each year, a sum that forms a large part of the annual operating cost.
NO MAGIC FORMULA
But, mind you, there is no magic formula to a successful operation, although the smart-thinking Ng has broken it down to what is almost a science of clubhouse management.
His astute behind-the-scene work with Tiong Bahru and Hougang is no secret to the football fraternity. In 2013, he chaired a workshop for all S-League clubs, detailing the systems and processes – right down to opening hours on public holidays and food and beverage privileges for members – he has put in place at the two facilities under his watch.
“The standard operating procedures that we’ve put in place show that every single club can do more than just survive,” said Ng. “And we are more than willing to share what we’ve done with everyone.”
Now Ng is looking at bigger off-the-field goals. He has ambitious personal aspirations to lead Singapore football very soon. According to the gossipy grapewine, he intends to field a team to contest the upcoming FAS elections, with possibly former famous Tampines Rovers chairman Teo Hock Seng, who helmed the S-League club from 2000 to 2015, in his potentially power-packed team.
The FAS elections will mark a major milestone, where for the first time in over four decades, only the 46 voting affiliates will cast their votes to pick a new leadership. They include seven S-League clubs, 10 NFL sides, 14 IWL clubs and 11 Women’s Premier League (WPL) teams. The rest are unattached teams such as sit-out sides Woodlands Wellington, Tanjong Pagar, Gombak United (former S-League clubs) and Singapore Recreation Club (ex-NFL club).
For the moment, under the two big ‘B’s – Bill Ng and Balaguraman – Hougang is getting hotter and hotter, just like the heartlander folks do discreetly on the political scene. Definitely, there’s a very strong spine that now runs through the Cheetahs, now in fourth S-League place with 31 points from 20 matches.
And how I love fairy-tales, which always give us a special boost. Cinderella, or The Little Glass Slipper, is a fantastic folk tale embodying a myth-element of unjust oppression and triumphant reward. Thousands of variants are known throughout the world, and in Singapore, it’s in the little-known “hot” club, Hougang United.
If they fire up on their inspiring integration, on and off the field, and make a grand finale finish to the S-League season, I wouldn’t bet on them not grabbing a dream-come-true Cinderella-like AFC Cup slot, for the first time in history.
Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist who has been involved with the S-League from its founding years in 1996.