Home United coach Philippe Aw tells Kenneth Tan all about his first season in charge of the Protectors, his coaching philosophy and his desire to win the Singapore Cup...
It has been quite a year for the rookie, who was thrust into the role of Home United head coach last December following the departure of the experienced South Korean tactician Lee Lim-saeng.
The potential was there for all to see though, as Aw spent four seasons with the Protectors as a player before coaching the unbeaten under-21s to the Prime League title in 2014.
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For the club to look within their own ranks for such a major appointment, rather than setting their sights on more experienced options, was an unprecedented move.
Aw is certainly grateful for the opportunity to step into the hot seat, where he was shown lots of faith to blood in youngsters – with 40% of the squad aged 25 and below.
“For Home United to push me up is a really big thing which no one in Singapore football really expected,” the 39-year-old told FourFourTwo.
“Usually they will engage star names or at least local coaches who had prior experience with the national team. For them to let me do this is a very big honour for me and I was really happy because they recognised my time at the club.
“One key reason is also that we wanted to groom the youths. I’ve been in the club’s youth system so for me there’s no fear throwing in a youth player. If you bring in a foreign coach who doesn’t know the young players and their job is at stake, it’s very difficult for them to do something similar.”
Of course it has not all been a bed of roses for Aw in his first season in charge of a professional outfit, with a run of just two wins in eight matches during the period of April to May leaving the club languishing in the bottom half.
Add to that an early exit from the League Cup and it was not surprising that there were murmurs that perhaps he was not the right man for the job. After all, the club had declared their ambition in pre-season was to win all three trophies on offer.
Sticking to his guns
Despite the pressure to deliver, a determined Aw never changed the way he wanted his side to play football – continuing his philosophy of a high-energy passing game which is easy on the eyes.
“Of course there were many people on the outside talking here and there when things did not go well, but the management fully backed me,” he recalled.
“They persisted with me and that has been the main reason. It took us some time to find our feet with long-term injuries to key players like Ken Ilso and Noh Rahman.
“But we went out there trying to play an attractive brand of football and we never moved away from it and start playing long balls even when things wasn’t going so right.
“This playing style did not always guarantee wins, but we continued playing in the same manner because I believe the fans want to see good football.
“We didn’t always get results, but I’m very happy with the performances. If we had finished off the chances we created, we could have finished top of the league.”
The unwavering faith in his players paid off in the end – former LionsXII defender Abdil Qaiyyim stepped up to deliver his most consistent season to date, young Frenchman Ambroise Begue emerged as a key attacker after some uncertain displays and midfielder Azhar Sairudin rose above his family tragedy in June to deliver one good display after another.
Eventually the pieces fell into place as they put together a neat 10-game unbeaten run towards the tail end of the season.
If you look at most of the clubs, they depend on foreign centre-backs – where is the next generation of national team defenders going to come from?
“There were plenty of ups and downs for the team,” Aw said. “I’m just happy the player stepped up as the season went along.
“The team rallied together to help Azhar get through the difficult period of his life, which was something good to see.
“As for young Ambroise, he needed some time to settle down because after all he came alone to Singapore from a youth academy in France. I told myself not to give him too much pressure and he has since proved to everyone that he’s such a good player. Of course there’s the help of Kamel (Ramdani) who has been talking to him because he can speak the language.
“Also it has been a good season for Abdil. Before the start of the season, I thought, ‘why not give the local boys a chance in the centre-back positions?’
“If you look at most of the clubs, they depend on foreign centre-backs – where is the next generation of national team defenders going to come from? I just hope that we can be the supply line for the national team, instead of just the Young Lions or the LionsXII.
“Abdil has shown that he can play consistently after not being given a chance for the past few seasons and he never shirks a challenge.”
Bring on the White Swans
After a topsy-turvy year, Home have a chance of ending it with some silverware. Trailing 3-2 against newly-crowned league champions Brunei DPMM in the Singapore Cup semi-finals, the young Protectors put up an accomplished display in the second leg on Tuesday – eventually overturning the tie through goals from Azhar and Imran Sahib.
That set them up for the showpiece final against Japanese outfit Albirex Niigata (Singapore) on Friday night. With Albirex taking the League Cup and DPMM winning the league, Home is the only team to prevent a clean sweep of trophies for the foreign sides this season.
The last time this happened was in 2010 where the now-defunct Etoile FC won a League Cup and league double, while Thailand’s Bangkok Glass took home the Singapore Cup. Aw is determined to prevent a repeat this year.
“As a local, of course it hurt me to see that,” he admitted. “That’s why we want to be the local team to prevent the foreign teams from winning everything and the boys are very motivated to do that.
“I always want to see local teams doing well, but it’s a sign why Albirex and DPMM have won the titles so far. We need to reflect why this is happening for local football and it’s telling us local teams that we need to work harder.
“We need to see the bigger picture in terms of where local football is heading towards. If we want the national team to do well, the whole country need to come together and the responsibility starts from the clubs.
“If the players do well and get noticed, the national team will have a larger pool of players to choose from. Then sponsors will come and things will happen again for Singapore football.”
With remarkable ambition and drive, it will be a dream end for Aw’s first season in charge of Home should he pull off a Singapore Cup triumph.