Tan Cheng Hoe says he can't turn Malaysia into cup kings Kedah
There were some in Malaysia who felt that Tan Cheng Hoe should have been appointed national team head coach seven months ago before being installed as Nelo Vingada's assistant. Now, as Vingada returns to Portugal after seven games, six losses and zero wins, No. 2 has become No. 1.
Tan has served his time. In 2015, the 49-year-old took Kedah to promotion and the final of the Malaysia Cup. A year later, that trophy was heading north to Alor Setar. Just as impressive was a third place finish in the top tier.
The national team seemed the obvious next step, though it came as assistant to Vingada, a second spell as deputy follwing a much more successful period with K. Rajagobal when Malaysia won the 2009 Southeast Asia (SEA) Games and 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup.
To return to such heights will take time for a team ranked 174th in the world by FIFA, a lowest-ever position. It will also require determination, and plenty more besides. At least, Tan understands the difficulty of the road ahead.
"It is a big task but it is a challenge I have to take," Tan told ESPN FC."I will do my best and there is a lot of work to do."
It proved to be too much for Vingada. After his departure, there was no time even for the usual debate as whether the new man would be local or foreign. Within hours, Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) president Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim (TMJ) was making the call to Tan.
"I was shocked, but it was a big honour for me to be appointed as coach of the national team by TMJ," Tan said.
The priority for the new man is clear. It is not tactics or strategy or training camps, but something more basic.
"The first thing is I have to do is change the mentality of the players when they come to the national team. They have to be willing to sacrifice for their country," he said.
Tan wants players hungry for success when they get the call-up and feels that has not been the case of late.
"In the last few years, players are not really sacrificing for the country," he explained. "I hope the mentality will change for the good of Malaysian football. Probably our players are already in their comfort zone playing in the Super League, receiving good salaries and all the rest. I am not criticising the clubs, they are looking after the players."
"We have not been good enough in 2017, but also for the last two years, too.
"I also have to instill a winning mentality in the team and help them become more confident. I have to start from scratch. It is a big job. It is important to give them positive thinking, give them confidence, support them and encourage them. It is not easy."
Tan has the local knowledge to get started.
"I can see the way of Malaysian players, what they want. They want a coach to give them confidence, to give them guidance. This is what I am going to do but it is going to be a big job," Tan said.
Don't expect a version of Kedah any time soon however. He added: "A lot of people are saying that I can transform the national team to the way we played at Kedah, but we are not there yet.
"It is too soon to say what will be best for the national team but there will definitely be changes. We have a new technical director and I will sit down with him, and also Ong Kim Swee, the coach of the U23 team, and also Bojan in charge of the under-19 team."
It remains to be seen if having a relatively quiet 2018 is a help or hindrance. The only major tournament comes at the AFF Suzuki Cup in November, after Ong's youngsters play in the 2018 AFC U23 Championship in China in January.
"There is no target at all for us. We want to do our best at the AFF Suzuki Cup. Thailand have been the best team for two championships and in the region, they are leading the way. We need to work hard and try to close the gap," Tan said.
For now, it is all about changing the mood and the atmosphere around the national team. Tan wants all involved in Malaysian football to play their part.
"The fans and media have to give me time to coach the team. Many players are also disappointed with the bad results and there is a lot of negativity around at the moment and this stresses the players too," he said.
"We can all help with this. We all have to work together."
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.