The Croat is faced with an even greater task returning to the Malaysian arena compared to when he left it, as he tells John Duerden about the challenge of turning Penang around...
Bojan Hodak is back. Just over a year after the Croatian left Johor Darul Ta’zim, he returned to Malaysian football and had a coffee with FourFourTwo.
The situation now however, is rather different. Not only is he with Penang, fighting relegation instead of chasing the championship, he is the club CEO and not just the head coach.
In the short-term, his role could be crucial for the islanders. In the long-term, perhaps, just perhaps, it could be a game-changer for the whole of Malaysian football.
Due to timing issues such as a pressing trip to Europe for a refresher on a coaching licence, Hodak rejected an initial offer to become head coach. “They came again and said that they need someone like a CEO as they don't have professionals in the club,” he tells FourFourTwo. “Most of them are volunteers but have other businesses – developers, politicians, architects but none are a person who depends on football. This is maybe one reason why things should be better.”
If you have expensive foreign players … it is easier most of the time to change the coach.
Just one win in the first twelve games have left Penang languishing at the bottom of the 12-team league. Jacksen Tiago, the man who led Panthers to promotion last season, was 'rested' in April and the Brazilian is still technically head coach, though that situation should be resolved soon. Hodak's Croatian compatriot and former JDT II boss Nenad Bacina has become manager and will take on head coach duties.
It is perhaps fortunate that the league is on a break until mid-July as it gives time for the new men to take stock. “There are only ten matches left but two or three good results can change a lot. The good thing about Penang is that the fans are passionate and not friendly for opponents.
"If you know that the fans are behind you, you can do a good job. If you look at the results, Penang were never thrashed but we need to find a way to win the games.”
The new CEO wants a more balanced team between different positions in the squad and in terms of youth and experience. His opinion is that there are too many young players. There should be a little money made available for new signings.
At the end of the season all parties will review the situation before moving forward. If this arrangement of having football people in positions of authority in football clubs is successful, then it could provide a model for the rest of Malaysia.
We need to find what went wrong and then have to find a way to improve. It's about results. Score more and concede less.
“I think it is the first of this kind in Malaysia. I report to the Exco of Penang FA. They decide the budget. I will go to them and they will approve or not. I will give them ideas and they will make final decision but I think they will be supportive.
“If it works here, I think everyone else will start to look at it. JDT employ a technical director which is something similar and other teams like Felda are also looking at this.
The 45-year-old does not expect politics to disappear from the Malaysian game as money will continue to come from that sector but there will be changes. “You can see more people from business entering football and they are trying to do things properly, it is not the old style. It is moving slowly. If they do privatisation as they are supposed to do then things can change a lot, clubs will need to think differently.”
Not all clubs. JDT are the leaders in more ways than one with the club's benefactor Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim (TMJ) investing money and time in the champions. “You can see what is happening in Johor. TMJ puts money in but the most important thing is the people who will execute these ideas. JDT are the best example for everyone in Malaysia.”
The champions are in the Croatian's opinion, the only club to think two or three years ahead. The man who delivered the treble to Kelantan in 2012 headed to the Larkin Stadium early in 2014. By the end of the year, JDT had a first league title. In April 2015 however, he was out. With the club in the title race and the AFC Cup, it was not, according to Hodak, down to results but relations with overseas stars.
“I had some problems with foreign players who said they were injured all the time. There were lots of things," he shrugs his shoulders. “If you have expensive foreign players … it is easier most of the time to change the coach. I never had problems before with foreign players. I think I was doing the right thing. I believe the way I do this is proper but there are things you can't influence.”
It is all, he says, in the past and he still has a good relationship with TMJ and the local players, the best in the country. Since Hodak's departure from the Larkin, he has watched JDT's exploits, including the AFC Cup triumph last October, with interest.
“The AFC Cup win last year had a little luck as Kuwait teams were suspended and every year they are in the final … but it was a big achievement. The Malaysian league is improving. When you have a tougher league and tougher matches, the players will become better.”
And if it becomes better on the pitch then for the next few weeks, months or however long it lasts, Hodak can help it become better off it too.
This new arrangement could end up helping all of Malaysian football but the immediate priority is Penang's survival. “We need to find what went wrong and then have to find a way to improve. It's about results. Score more and concede less. Simple things first.”