Uphill battle for FAM’s Scott O’Donell in turning Malaysian football around

It started out as a frank and open conversation at a coffeehouse on Thursday, which later turned into a full-blown interview. FA of Malaysia’s (FAM) new technical director, Scott O’Donell, celebrated his first month at Wisma FAM yesterday.

The Australian described his first month in office as “hectic”, but “a good kind of hectic”. It helped that he is in “familiar” territory. After all, O’Donell once played for Kuala Lumpur FA in the domestic league, and stayed at Palm Court Condominium, in Brickfields. While away, he confessed to missing roti canai.

“I was in Melbourne and I paid A$8.50 for a roti canai. That’s like RM25! When I was in Kuala Lumpur, I had three roti canai and a Milo ais for only RM7!” exclaimed O’Donell.

But he isn’t here on a “honeymoon” – a term often used on most foreigners who ply their trade in Malaysia. Critics believe there are enough qualified locals who can assume the role of a technical director. In fact, O’Donell replaced former international Datuk Ong Kim Swee as technical director.

O’Donell also drew flak when he was quoted as saying that the national team needed a foreign coach. Days later, the national body named former Korean Football Association team director, Kim Pan Gon, as the new Harimau Malaya head coach. Kim takes over from Tan Cheng Hoe, who left following the team’s dismal performance at the recent Asean Football Federation Cup.

“When I said that Malaysia needed a foreign coach, I wasn’t disrespecting the local coaches. When we get in a foreign coach, we can share his knowledge and experience. We must tap into his (Kim’s) expertise,” said O’Donell.

But would the local coaches be given access, or even be interested to pick up a trick or two from Kim?

“There must be a relationship between the national coach and local coaches. I get it that some coaches don’t like to be watched during training, but everyone must come with an open mind. A coach may have his or her way of doing things, but there’s always room to learn.

“We (coaches) have got to be like sponges. We always have to ask questions and be inquisitive. This is not a sign of weakness.”

He also added that the various teams and departments should not work in isolation, and repeated that FAM’s F30 roadmap should be a “living document” that must continue to evolve.

For example, O’Donell said that coaches and players should not just believe in one formation. They must be prepared to adopt other formations.

“What’s the use of training for one specific formation if you don’t have players for said formation? The coaches and players need to be flexible and adapt to the circumstances and the availability of the right players playing in the right positions.”

O’Donell brings with him, extensive experience in the region. He played in Singapore and Australia, is a Fifa-accredited coaching instructor, had once served the Asian Football Confederation as director of coach education, and was also the All-India Football Federation (AIFF) technical director.

As FAM’s technical director, his predecessors included the late Richard Bates, Ronald Smith, the late N. Raju, Robert Alberts, Lim Kim Chon, Fritz Schmid, and Peter de Roo. Most of them left with a bitter taste in their mouths.

Will O’Donell survive his three-year contract?

“A realistic goal is to see the (grassroots) Suparimau League played in every state. We want kids to fall in love with both the game, and the ball. Parental support is very important.”

While admitting that children should have fun, more competitions would imbue in them, a fighting spirit and a competitive mindset that would motivate them to play better.

He also said it was important to educate and explain why certain decisions are made, adding that his brief stint as a reporter in the past, had opened his eyes as to how the press operated.

“It’s important that we explain and justify what we are doing, and why we are doing it. I’d like to update the press regularly. I’d like them (the media) to know more about coaching education, grassroots (development) and women’s football.

“The people at FAM are all working hard to make all this happen… These elements make up the football ecosystem.”

While attention is often on the national football team, other programmes lined up for the stakeholders in the sport also play a role in creating more talents.

O’Donell, a father of two, clearly has more to share, including ways of encouraging more girls to play football in a safe and healthy environment.

There’s little that can be achieved in three years as the world slowly claws back to normalcy after being battered by the Covid-19 pandemic.

But O’Donell was confident that he would achieve his goals when the time came for him to leave.

Beyond football, if there was one thing he would like to change, it would be to see fewer people smoking.

“Everywhere you go, you see people smoking or vaping. I just don’t understand why people do it, what motivates them to put the stick between their fingers.

“I just hope that people will stop smoking.”

O’Donell’s hopes of seeing Malaysians stop smoking is similar to seeing Malaysian football shine. It’s an arduous task, despite the numerous million-ringgit campaigns and initiatives in the past.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob recently pledged to give the national body RM10 million, despite its repeated failures. Hopefully, O’Donell will be given the space and opportunity to strike a goal or two during his brief stint here.

Otherwise, he may end up being “another bitter and jaded technical director” who once served the national body.