Aw toyed with failure to keep his lifelong Singapore football dream alive
When it was announced that Philippe Aw would take charge of Home United for the 2015 season, many wondered if the rookie Singaporean coach was the right man to help the fallen giants get back to the top.
But sitting down with the 39-year-old, you quickly get a sense of the passion that the club management saw in a fiercely determined man.
He's made many sacrifices to represent Home United, both as a player and coach, with a lifelong vision to "reshape Singapore football, bit by bit".
As a youngster in the 1980s and 1990s, Aw dabbled in many different sports, before falling head over heels with the black and white leather ball that changed his life forever.
"I actually played badminton, before going onto football, " he told ESPN FC. "Then I went to Toh Tuck Secondary where I played football but the school closed down in my first year. I joined Chestnut Drive Secondary and was in the school team.
"During those days, we were not very good and always got thrashed by the powerhouses like Jin Tai (Secondary). It was not until my time at Ngee Ann Polytechnic (NP) that football became more serious. I captained the NP school team in my third year and we were Inter-varsity Poly (IVP) champions that year."
Leading Ngee Ann to the IVP title was testament to Aw's football and leadership skills. But what transpired in the next chapter of his life bordered on insanity as the fleet-footed winger made a surprising career choice.
His then NP teammate Lim Soon Seng was plying his trade for Tiong Bahru in the National Football League Division One. He managed to convince Aw to head down for training with the NFL side. And it didn't take long before the young winger was a regular starter under the guidance of coaches PN Sivaji and Arasu.
The two coaches moved to Balestier Khalsa the following year, and they brought Aw along. That was when he made his S.League debut in 1998 for the Toa Payoh-based outfit.
Then came a crossroads for Aw, who made a decision that would horrify most Singaporean parents. He chose to fail his exam on purpose to pursue his footballing passion.
He explained: "I just started playing for Balestier in 1998 and I told myself, I cannot stop football because without football, I'm finished. So I thought long and hard about it and purposely failed one subject (in his Building and Real Estate Management Diploma course).
"I went to my lecturer and said, 'Sir, I'm going to fail your subject'. He asked me a few times if I was sure about it. I then told my parents about it and they thought I was crazy.
"It took me a long time to convince them that I knew what I was doing, and I went on to play that whole season for Balestier before graduating six months later with a diploma."
And with his parents heaving a sigh of relief that their son completed his studies, another life-changing decision was revealed to them by the pragmatic Aw.
"People just started noticing me (in football) and I wanted to continue playing. I knew I will kenna (get called up) for National Service and it was either army or the police. If I kenna army, I'll play for Singapore Armed Forces FC (SAFFC), but I only wanted to play for Home United.
"So I made the decision to sign on as a regular with the Police Force and to be honest, that was the only reason I signed on."
Thankfully, it all worked out well for Aw as he made his debut for the Protectors in 1999 under coach Robert Alberts. He subsequently went on to represent the club for four seasons in the S.League before moving back to see out his time as a police officer while playing for Police SA in the NFL till the end of 2006.
Just when he handed in his resignation letter on the first day of 2007, a random telephone call from Home United Prime League coach Bernard Lan set Aw onto the path that has always been his main career goal: to coach at youth level and help groom the next generation of Singapore footballers.
So, he took on the role of Home United's COE coach for the next few years while creating a pathway for children to fall in love with the game. That was when he was given the opportunity to work on growing the talent pool of young footballers, albeit with the financial help of his personal friends as well.
"Central CDC launched a programme called 'Freekicks' that gave needy youths a platform to play football. But we also wanted to grow the pool at a younger level and that is why I worked with the club to launch HUFC Kids Academy." recounted Aw.
"So I persuaded two of my personal friends, one of whom is currently Home's half-time buffet VIP sponsor Cita Rasa Catering, and they were supportive of the vision of giving kids a chance to play football. Each of them took out $5,000 and I managed to keep it going."
Initially, the Sunday academy was held at Whitley Secondary School before moving to the lush surrounds of the Home Youth Football Academy (HYFA) at Mattar Road last year.
Aw was pleased with the progress of the academy while his role as Prime League coach saw them crowned 2014 champions. Then the call came from the club's management, offering him the role of Home United S.League coach to fill the void left by South Korean manager Lim Lee Saeng.
But, despite his busy schedule as an S.League coach, Aw continued showing up on Sundays at HYFA, and walked the grounds diligently to ensure everything was in order.
It perhaps wasn't necessary but there was no stopping the man who had been so dedicated to making the academy a reality.
"It was a shock to have been offered the S.League role," he said. "I thought management wanted to discuss about my plans for the Prime League but it turned out totally unexpected.
"In this past months, I've learnt so much as Home's coach and had to go through many difficult situations, but every weekend, I make it a point to come down here (HYFA) to meet the parents of the kids, speak to the kids and get updates from my coaches. My love for youth football will never die, and my objective as a coach is far bigger than just being a S.League coach.
"I didn't want it to be a case of me becoming a senior coach and walking away from these kids who are everything I strived for. Some of the academy players will come up to me and say they saw me on television the day before, and this to me can be that small inspiration for them to know what they can aim for in football."
Beyond his passion for grassroots development, Aw is confident that he can return Home United to their past glories, by adding a long-overdue third S.League title to the dusty trophy cabinet at their Bishan base.
He declared: "This club is all about long-term vision and loyalty. We build HYFA as an infrastructure to the future, we blood youngsters in our S.League team to earn the experience.
"I am not a magician. You can't expect me to come in and suddenly work wonders. Like all things we do at Home United, I need more time, and if you give me time, we will be there one of this seasons.
"I am very, very confident that we will rule the S.League one of these days if we continue in what we believe in."
And with that, Aw rose from his chair and dashed out of the room. For a fleeting moment, it wasn't clear what the rush was about until there was the sight of him shaking hands with the academy kids who were waiting in line to say their goodbyes for the day.
It was a simple yet meaningful gesture from Aw. Each handshake was accompanied by a short conversation revolving around their school work, football training and family.
The small things matter to one of the youngest coaches in the S.League, who continues to pursue his passion for junior development while doing what he can to help the uniformed giants return to their S.League glory days.
ESPN FC editor Kelvin Leong is a former media officer for Singapore and ex-regional editor of ESPNSTAR.com. Twitter: @KelvinLeong29.