Pippo puts faith in Hougang strikers, backs youth plan for Singapore
Having failed to achieve the management's targets last year, coach Philippe Aw is eyeing better fortunes in his second season in charge of Hougang United in the 2018 S.League season.
Aw aimed to win at least one trophy in 2017, but came up empty-handed, while finishing sixth out of nine teams, despite some promising moments.
"We had an up-and-down year with players missing at times. I feel that it's difficult to go for glory in the first season," he told ESPN FC.
"You need a lot of things to work. First, you need to make sure the players are buying into the training system. Second, you need to build the team spirit. Third, you need to have consistent performances.
"At the end of the day, Albirex Niigata (S) were the champions because they were consistent. They were the most hardworking and professional club. That's what we want to do in 2018 -- copying the good things and that's not something that can be achieved overnight."
A keen advocate of blooding young talent, "Pippo" Aw is fully supportive of Football Association of Singapore's (FAS) decision to introduce youth-oriented rules for 2018.
All six local clubs, including Tampines Rovers, Home United, Geylang International, Warriors FC and Balestier Khalsa, are to register at least six under-23 players and eight under-30 players.
Ex-Home United boss Aw has raided Garena Young Lions to bring in defender Illyas Lee, winger Muhaimin Suhaimi and forward Jordan Chan, while promoting the likes of Gerald Ting, Justin Hui and Syukri Bashir from the Prime League (PL). It brings the number of under-23 players at Hougang to 10.
Meanwhile, Ashrul Syafeeq and Stanely Ng have joined from Balestier and Geylang respectively.
"Definitely, we needed to change something in Singapore football so I'm glad that the people in the FA have decided that this is the year to change," he said.
"Basically, what we're doing is to support this initiative. If the FA set an initiative and people don't support, we're not going to achieve what we want to do, which is to work together to help the national team.
"I brought in players like Muhaimin and Illyas because I knew them years ago when I was still a youth coach. What's important is that we wanted to bring in players with good attitude, who are willing to pick up new things and learn the modernised way of training."
A huge factor for Hougang's struggles last season was their failings in front of goal, having netted just 24 times in 24 league games. Only third-from-bottom Balestier and wooden spooners Young Lions had worse records.
Spanish target man Pablo Rodriguez, who scored just two league goals, has been understandably released from the club. But Aw is hesitant about splashing the cash on another foreign striker.
Young French-Italian forward Antoine Viterale has been promoted from the PL and will take up one of the two import slots.
"Of course, that's the simple and straightforward solution. But if everyone starts to find this solution, our local strikers will suffer," he explained. "We're in this initiative to help the national team to find a no. 9 after [Khairul] Amri and Fazrul [Nawaz].
"Nowadays, teams play with just one striker, so you will play your other players around as a No. 10, No. 11 or No. 7. If you play a foreigner up there, the local strikers are going to struggle when they need to play upfront for the national team.
"So, let's go with local strikers. We've Iqbal [Hussain], Fareez [Farhan] and young Shukri [who scored 16 goals in the PL last season]. Of course, you can't compare them to top foreign strikers, but you got to give them time to develop.
They'll make mistakes and improve from there. Hopefully by end 2018, we have some strikers ready for the national team."
Aw hopes that doing things right off the pitch will translate to results on it as they look forward to a positive campaign in 2018.
"I've told the boys that it's important that we behave like professionals to keep this trade going," he said. "If we don't improve this aspect, we may not have a league in five or 10 years' time.
"We want to uphold professionalism by investing in technology. Four members of the technical team, including me, went to Germany for two weeks to learn from how the people there do things. If we can implement certain aspects here, it'll be great for us."
Kenneth Tan is a Singapore-based football writer on S.League and AFC Cup for ESPN FC and FourFourTwo. Twitter: @KennerveT