Ong Kim Swee, One-on-One: Sackings, silver medals and big offers from Indonesia

The last year has been a turbulent ride for Ong Kim Swee. Promoted to head coach of the Malaysian national team, he was then demoted to the under-22 side before finding redemption at the SEA Games. He joined FourFourTwo’s Vijhay Vick for a wide-ranging interview.

At the conclusion of the 2015 SEA Games, Ong was at a crossroad in his career. At the time he didn’t want to prepare for another Games and the national team position was occupied by Dollah Salleh.

Some poor results led to Dollah’s removal, however, and Ong was was installed as the interim national team coach.

The response from the players was positive, so I felt confident about being handed the job permanently

At the time he also applied for the Malaysia under-22 position in what seemed a back-up move in case he was not given the job permanently with Harimau Malaya.

The 46-year-old former Harimau Muda coach was dealt a blow when FAM – in collaboration with the National Sports Council, the team’s main funders – opted for Frank Bernhardt. Could a coach that was overlooked for the age-group squad be the right man for the senior team?

“Of course it was not a good sign as everyone was aware that I’d been involved at youth level for a very long time,” Ong told FourFourTwo.

“I knew they wanted somebody new after we didn't get a good result in 2015, so I understood that point of theirs.

“But I had another option as the national team job was also available.

It's been a journey, but Ong usually handles himself well with the media

“I was already interim and taking over from Dollah was not easy. I saw it as a challenge and the players did well during my time.

“We didn’t get favourable results in some games, but the response from the players was positive, so I felt confident about being handed the job permanently.”

MALAYSIA STINT - ILL-FATED OR POSITIVE?

Ong’s first real challenge came against a heavily Brazilian-influenced Timor Leste – who months later were sanctioned for fielding ineligible players – in the Asian Cup qualifying playoffs.

Malaysia won 6-0 on aggregate and embarked on an Oceania Tour, which Ong insisted was beneficial despite facing criticism over some mixed results.

I accept that I failed but at the same time, I had the opportunity to learn what to do in the future

All hell then broke loose in Malaysian football as four stalwarts – skipper Safiq Rahim, Aidil Zafuan Abdul Radzak, Amirul Hadi Zainal and S. Kunanlan – announced their international retirements to concentrate on their club duties at Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT).

That, Brendan Gan’s knee injury and many more unexplained absences from the squad meant Malaysia resembled a bunch of second-stringers.

“My time as Malaysia coach brings me mixed feelings. The batch I had in the playoff was the best in the country. Then came a turbulent period as we needed to reshuffle and go for the AFF Suzuki Cup with a second squad,” said Ong.

“On the other hand, it was also an opportunity to get the players exposed and ready for the future. There were positives as some players are better equipped today.

The Suzuki Cup proved a tough time for Ong and the team

“The only regret were the results. When I took over, I had gone through the system in FAM and I wanted results in the senior team, where all the youth coaches aspire to be someday. Unfortunately I couldn't get that.

“That was my main priority frankly. I accept that I failed but at the same time, I had the opportunity to learn what to do in the future.

DEMOTION AND A CHANGE OF FORTUNES

Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim, who had criticised Ong’s tenure, became FAM president in March 2017 and Ong was immediately removed and demoted to the Malaysia under-22 side as Bernhardt was axed entirely.

“Everyone was talking about me getting the sack when Tunku Ismail was appointed but he moved me instead. I think he knew I work well with young players,” said Ong, who was named among the 15 best Southeast Asian managers by FourFourTwo in August.

Ong took charge of Malaysia at the AFC Under-23 qualifiers and the 2017 SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur.

He instantly set two targets – qualifying for the AFC Under-23 and winning the SEA Games gold medal.

[NEXT UP: Learning a whole new style in London]