Ong Kim Swee returns to familiar battleground eager for Sabah to keep on flying the Malaysian flag

Having once coached an entire season in Singapore with the now-defunct Harimau Muda, Ong Kim Swee will return to familiar surroundings when his Sabah outfit take on Hougang United in the AFC Cup on Thursday. Sabah Football Club

For a Malaysian coach, Ong Kim Swee should interestingly enough be feeling quite at home in Singapore on Thursday evening -- when he takes to the Jalan Besar Stadium dugout for his Sabah outfit's away clash with Hougang United in the AFC Cup.

Then again, Singaporean football was after all indeed his "home" once.

Back in 2012, an agreement between the Malaysian and Singaporean football associations saw both nations send a team to play in each other's domestic competition.

Entering the S.League (now Singapore Premier League) were Harimau Muda, who -- under Ong's stewardship -- achieved a creditable fourth-place finish and captured the imagination with some eye-catching displays despite solely calling upon under-23 players with no foreign imports.

While Harimau Muda continued to be based and train in Malaysia, and although their official 'homeground' when in Singapore for matches was Yishun Stadium, they had their fair share of games at Jalan Besar -- which was the designated venue for the televised marquee tie of the round.

Ong, who spent almost the entirety of his managerial career involved in the Football Association of Malaysia setup before finally returning to club football when he joined Sabah in 2021, has fond memories of those days -- but insists the success he achieved then will count for nothing a decade on.

"It's good to be back here (but) it's totally different," Ong told ESPN.

"When I was with Harimau Muda playing in the league here, we were a youth team. Now, I have a club team. Definitely, it's a different kind of intensity.

"Of course, we know Hougang are a good team from when we met them earlier (in the campaign) and we know Hougang need a result while, at the same time, we need a result to put is in a very good situation.

"For me, being back here doesn't automatically mean -- with my past record in Singapore -- that I'm going to achieve a good result if we don't work hard.

"We have to be fully focused and expect a far different Hougang to the one we played previously. I believe with the momentum we have and the discipline we've shown in the past few games, we can achieve what we want."

While Sabah are not one of Malaysian football's traditional powerhouses, they have made a steady rise since Ong's arrival -- having only returned to the top-flight Super League in 2020 after seven seasons in the second tier.

Champions of Malaysia just once before in 1996, last year's third-place finish was their highest-ever in the MSL era and earned them a maiden AFC Cup appearance, although they did previously feature in the now-defunct Asian Cup Winner's Cup.

Shining on the continental stage has become an increasing trend for Malaysia's representatives with last season seeing Johor Darul Ta'zim reaching the AFC Champions League knockout round for the first time, while Kuala Lumpur City were AFC Cup runners-up.

On a broader scale, Southeast Asian sides -- in the form of KL City and Vietnam's Hanoi FC -- have enjoyed strong runs in the AFC Cup previously, which is something Ong hopes his charges can emulate with his team currently holding a three-point lead at the top of Group G ahead of Hai Phong and PSM Makassar.

"Definitely, it's a positive scenario when the (Malaysia) national team is doing well, JDT has been doing well in the Champions League, and now we have Sabah and Terengganu in the AFC Cup.

"Our intention is to have belief. What JDT and Kuala Lumpur achieved, when they qualified for the AFC Cup final, shows we (Malaysian football) is not too far away from the top level.

"The most important thing is that we continue whatever the other clubs have been doing.

"At the same time, this is our first season (back in Asian football) after so long. I hope we can go further than this stage.

"Then, the confidence level will be high and there will be belief not only among the players, coaches and officials but also the fans -- they they know the Malaysia Super League can also be one of the best leagues in Southeast Asia.

"We want to achieve this not just for Sabah but for all of Malaysian football."

While Sabah are relatively fresh to the scene, one man with no shortage of similar experience is goalkeeper Khairul Fahmi, who twice reached the AFC Cup knockout round while on the books of Kelantan.

A one-time long term No. 1 for Malaysia, Fahmi is also familiar with the added spice that inevitably arises when representatives from his country and neighbours Singapore face off -- as will be the case on Thursday.

"We all know that (games between) Malaysia and Singapore (teams) are always something," he replied, when asked by ESPN about the added stakes of the contest.

"It's never easy to play in Singapore, especially at Jalan Besar Stadium.

"For me, we are representing both Sabah and Malaysia. I hope we can give a good performance and keep up our positive momentum."