Analysis

Rags to riches: The curious case of Ong Kim Swee

Ong Kim Swee started the year still bearing the brunt of some heavy criticism for Malaysia's poor AFF Suzuki Cup performance. Eight months later he is being lauded for his work at the SEA Games. Here John Duerden delves deeper into an odd year for the Malaysian mentor...

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When Ong Kim Swee looks at the silver medal he won after Malaysia lost the final of the 2017 SEA Games to Thailand, looking back at him will be the face of a changed coach.

This year has been a crazy one for the 46-year-old.

He has actually proven himself to be a fine manager of a national team and able to get results in tournament situations

He started it still as head coach of the senior national team, but coming off a poor showing at the AFF Suzuki Cup, where the Tigers crashed out in the group stage.

By March he was demoted to take over the under-23 team and in August he is the toast of the nation.

One thought quickly springs to mind – if Ong Kim Swee hadn’t been the head coach of the Malaysia national team already, he would now be next in line for the job.

That is because he has actually proven himself to be a fine manager of a national team and able to get results in tournament situations.

Over the last few months in charge of the under-23 team, he managed to secure qualification for the 2018 AFC-U23 Championships, which will be held in China in January.

How many coached have guided Malaysia to the AFC U23 tournament?

It is the first time Malaysia has ever qualified for that tournament and he did it by topping a group that included host and regional power Thailand.

He then went on to reach the SEA Games final and can now add a silver to the gold he won in the same tournament back in 2011.

If Vingada can lead the senior side to similar heights as his predecessor is doing with the younger team then everyone will be happy

If Ong had not been demoted from the main job earlier this year, then the media would surely be standing on top of one of the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur and the fans would be on the other, shouting his name across the country.

They would be directing their voices in the direction of Kelana Jaya in particular, the home of the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM).

This all started at the end of 2015, when OKS (now one of the few people in Malaysian football who can be identified by his initials) became caretaker coach of the senior national team before being given the job ‘permanently’ in early 2016.

As Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim (TMJ) became FAM president in March, however, it was generally expected that he would bring a new man into the national team hotseat.

During his time in charge of Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT), the country’s leading club, TMJ had criticised the Melaka-born manager more than once.

OKS has had a rollercoaster ride, including with the press

In came Nelo Vingada as head coach, an experienced Portuguese coach assisted by the bright and relatively young Tan Cheong Hoe. Down went Ong to take over the under-23 team.

This is not to say that those decisions were necessarily wrong. Indeed, TMJ’s moves have been hailed this week as a thing of genius.

Media, fans, clubs and the FAM could all have given him a little more help. After all there was plenty to deal with

It could well be. If Vingada can lead the senior side to similar heights as his predecessor is doing with the younger team then everyone will be happy.

It could well be that moving Ong ‘downstairs’ relieved him of some pressure and gave him the freedom to find his own way as a coach. It could well be that he had to take a step back in order to go forward.

The recent under-23 qualifying tournament in Thailand gave Ong a relatively low-profile opportunity to find his feet.

This led to increased confidence and team cohesion during the SEA Games, when the mild-mannered tactician showed that he could shoulder the expectations of a host nation.

Agony and ectasy: OKS and Malaysia were so close to gold

But it could well be that OKS was a decent coach to start with and just didn’t get the time and support he needed with the senior team.

Media, fans, clubs and the FAM could all have given him a little more help. After all there was plenty to deal with.

Through it all, he conducted himself with real class. Ong Kim Swee has grown in stature and reputation

He had to deal with a team that had little to no confidence after a series of serious thrashings.

He had to deal with the retirement of Safiq Rahim, the country’s best player, and the rest of the ‘JDT Four’ at a time when they were desperately needed.

He had to deal with plenty of criticism. He had to deal with plenty full stop.

The coach has shown in the past weeks that he can deliver.  Ahead of the qualification tournament in Thailand, he started with training camps when barely anyone turned up.

Ong made history during the qualifiers

He took Malaysian to within a satay’s distance of SEA Games gold. He pushed Thailand, the best team in the region, all the way. He came out of the group with the minimum of fuss and had the players improving game by game, a sign the coach was doing something right.

There was a little luck but all good teams need that. Being placed in much the easier of the two groups did not hurt.

That gave Malaysia a chance to develop gradually knowing they could make a mistake or two but still find a way through.

Through it all, he conducted himself with real class.

Ong Kim Swee has grown in stature and reputation.

It could be that the next coach of the national team will be the previous one.

That remains to be seen but what we will never know is this: if Malaysia had got behind the national team and given time, patience and support to Ong Kim Swee when he was the main man, they may well have found that the right man was already in place.

Photos: Asiana.my