All hail Hougang for looking like Leicester
Hougang United represent Hougang. Leicester City represent Leicester. What’s in a name? Just about everything when a sporting franchise seeks an identity and a long-term fan base to seep into the local psyche.
Patience has never been a virtue in professional football, even less so in the S.League
Much has been made of Hougang’s superficial similarities with the English Premier League champions and the comparisons are valid, particularly after the Cheetahs held Tampines Rovers to a decent draw last week.
The result was dripping with symbolism: The small-town heroes thwarting the headline hunters, the poor matching the nouveau riche, our Leicester City denying our Manchester United.
The analogies were as easy as they were over-simplified.
But Hougang’s steady improvement does hint at that established template once more, adopted across the J-League and borrowed more recently in spectacular fashion by Leicester.
Think smaller to grow bigger. Adopt the Tortoise and the Hare fable, adding names that suit the squad rather than a headline count, and promote slow and steady progress.
Such pragmatism might not capture the imagination now, but it may preserve S.League clubs later.
At the start of the English season, Leicester interested no one. Louis van Gaal’s madcap trolley dash around Europe’s biggest supermarket shelves dominated coverage. Now the world writes about Leicester. And van Gaal’s stories read like obituaries.
Patience has never been a virtue in professional football, even less so in the S.League, but Hougang’s low-key progress – light on glamour, heavy on grittiness – should be a cause for optimism.
Of course, the name helps. At the risk of again sounding like a broken record, clubs named after – and based in – their communities come with a pre-existing umbilical cord between those on the pitch and those on the terraces.
The ‘Hougang Hools’, like Leicester’s unlikely lads, currently provide an unrivalled S.League experience inside an intense, occasionally hostile, but always entertaining community venue.
They are local. They are loud. They are proud of their little club that could. It’s a simple formula, adapted everywhere from Burnley to Brisbane, with dedicated supporters, united by their postcodes, committed to an identifiable cause. Football fandom really isn’t rocket science. The name on the back of the jersey will attract the fickle through the doors initially. Only the name on the front will bring them back for good.
Other S.League clubs occasionally draw bigger crowds than Hougang, though not always consistently, but the hardcore Hools come closest to replicating the authentic atmosphere of lower league football in England (Premier League stadiums are a different beast altogether. At certain venues, it’s hard to hear the crowd over the prawn sandwich munching).
In the opening home game against Home United, and again last week against Tampines, more than 2,000 shuffled along the concrete blocks at Hougang Stadium.
Steady attendances sustain leagues. Wild crowd fluctuations, determined by the opponents, the weather or the latest Marvel movie, hardly make for an attractive sales package to potential advertisers.
Of course, Hougang’s unbeaten home record certainly helps and here the more obvious comparisons to Leicester are warranted.
Head coach K. Balagumaran keeps it simple. The recent FourFourTwo video of his pre-match team talk – which you can see here – offered a telling glimpse of his approach. It was less a tactical discussion than a rousing call to arms, more Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday than Pep Guardiola in any game in the Bundesliga.
At half-time, he ordered his boys to run an extra five kilometres against Tampines and find their game. Instead, they found an equaliser with 10 men.
Hougang have reigning S.League Player of the Year, Fumiya Kogure, doing his best Riyad Mahrez, while Stipe Plazibat revels in the Jamie Vardy role.
But the most uncanny resemblance to a flying fox is M. Anumanthan, mimicking N'Golo Kanté in both stature and storyline.
A deserving member of the FourFourTwo team of the month for April, alongside tenacious teammate Raihan Rahman, Anumanthan’s commanding performances are revelatory.
The club’s communal feel makes for an uplifting venue that inspires the hosts and intimidates opponents
Either at centre-back or in central midfield, he shapes Hougang’s spine. His influence is formidable, but fuss-free. He’s both durable and malleable, which makes him reliable and popular. Anu is Hougang United in microcosm.
He’s the kind of player that every S.League club needs to thrive and Hougang are the kind of club that the S.League needs to survive.
The Cheetahs are unlikely to fully emulate Leicester and win the title. Albirex Niigata are equipped with a Japanese scouting network that is obviously beyond the size and scope of Hougang (and also offers further indication of the one area where Singapore football needs serious improvement: international scouting).
But as a model for steady evolution in a league that has long been defined by its harsh Darwinist principles, the Cheetahs are penning a handy guide for others to follow.
Aware of Hougang’s limitations, Balagumaran has forged a squad greater than the sum of its parts. A team that finished bottom last season now boasts that unbeaten home record and an entrenched belief in its collective cause.
Most of all, the club’s communal feel, with a ground literally in the heart of its community, makes for an uplifting venue that inspires the hosts and intimidates opponents.
Hougang’s footballers and fans, working in tandem, are slowly building a fortress. And it’s beginning to look a lot like Leicester.
Photos: Weixiang Lim/FourFourTwo