Exclusive: Tan Cheng Hoe, Malaysia's best coaching prospect
Tan Cheng Hoe is one of the great hopes of Malaysian football.
Studious, serious and successful, his work in recent years turning Kedah into a title challenger showed that the country can still produce solid coaching talent.
I was hesitant to leave (Kedah) when the team was doing so well at the beginning of the season
Fans up in Alor Setar were as devastated as the players when the 46-year-old heeded the national team call earlier this year to become assistant coach, reprising a role he played from 2009 to 2013 under K Rajagobal.
Kedah were playing in front of big crowds, scoring goals and winning games. The glory days seemed to be around the corner again, but losing such a coach was a big blow.
Now though, Tan is focused on helping the glory days come back to the national team under head coach Nelo Vingada.
There were queries as to whether the country's top coach should be happy with a second spell as national team No.2, a question FourFourTwo put to Tan directly.
“I was sorry to say goodbye to Kedah, definitely,” said Tan, who placed fifth on FourFourTwo’s Top 15 ASEAN Managers list for 2017.
“It was a dilemma for me and I really had to think about it. I was hesitant to leave when the team was doing so well at the beginning of the season.”
Yet Tan says he could not refuse the new president of the Football Association of Malaysia, Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim (TMJ).
(FAM) is more professional and there is more energy. It is the right time to be involved
“At the beginning, I was unsure if i would be given the position of head coach or not. But after I met TMJ he told me that I will be under a new coach and asked me if it was OK. I said fine as I still have time in my career and I am happy to be here.”
Besides, insists Tan, the job has changed.
“There is a new president now,” he said. “I am very honored to work with TMJ. He led JDT (Johor Darul Ta'zim) to great things.
“The whole set-up is different too. It is more professional and there is more energy. It is the right time to be involved and I am working under an experienced coach.
“I am learning and that is the secret to being a good coach – never stop learning.”
Tan believes that if and when the main job became available in the future, he could do it.
“I think I am ready to be head coach, if they asked me,” he said.
“I have enough experience to handle the team. That would be a big challenge but I can handle it. Now though, I am focused on helping the team move forward."
I know most local players well, their capabilities and their best positions. I help (Vingada) with this
Naturally, Portuguese coach Vingada is still finding his feet in his adopted homeland, making Tan the perfect assistant.
“My job is now assisting the head coach when it comes to local players,” Tan explained.
“I know most local players well, their capabilities and their best positions. I help him with this.
“It is a two-way discussion. We have a good discussion and so far we have worked very well together.”
The first target is qualifying for the 2019 Asian Cup and it is a tough one. It became tougher after Malaysia lost the opening game 2-1 to Lebanon courtesy of a last-minute goal.
“It was frustrating to lose due to late goals, but I still am optimistic that we can qualify for the Asian Cup. It is still open for us.”
Whatever happens, Tan will always have a place in his heart for Kedah.
Without their coach, the Canaries could not sustain the challenge to defending champions JDT, who pulled away and claimed another Malaysia Super League title.
Tan believes it could have been different if he’d remained at club level.
“If I had stayed then I think we would have been challenging for the title.
“We were not far behind JDT but they are a complete team and not easy to catch.
“We would not win everything, but we could challenge as we were improving every year. We had good local players and good imports, the mix was right.”
Now it is all about doing the same for the national team.
“There is a lot of work to do,” he said. “But I think we are moving in the right direction.”