BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
Despite having captured their long-elusive 33rd Malaysia Cup title in 2015, Selangor continued their decline in 2016, finishing fifth in the Super League and ending up finalists in the Malaysia Cup.
Off the pitch issues came to a head, when an internal dispute between two factions; one headed by Selangor FA (FAS) president and Selangor state Menteri Besar Azmin Ali and the other headed by FAS deputy president Subahan Kamal, resulted in the resignation of the former, and with it the cessation of state funding.
With their financial situation looking dire, they lost a number of key players, and had to resort to promoting youth players from their Youth Cup and President's Cup squads to the senior team.
But amidst all the uncertainties, FAS managed to do one thing right; appointing former assistant and caretaker head coach P. Maniam as head coach. Initially, he was tasked with shaping up former second stringers who did not get any offers from other clubs and promising but experienced youngsters into a Super League side that are capable of avoiding relegation at the end of the season.
Although his appointment was made rather late in the pre-season, at the end of December 2016, the Pro-Diploma AFC licensed head coach must have liked what he was given to work with, as later he revised his objective; to finish the league in the top five position, a huge jump from the earlier target.
And following their first round MSL match, against Pulau Pinang last Saturday, it seemed like his belief is not unwarranted. Despite having the services of only two foreigners in the match, as well as a couple of the recently-promoted youngsters, against a full-strength side that fielded all their imports, the Red Giants beat the Panthers 2-0 at home, and the performance of the youngsters was highly lauded by many. Former Harimau Muda trainee Adam Nor Azlin scored one goal, while Malaysia U-19 captain Syahmi Safari was a constant threat down the right wing.
Maniam has also showed promising signs in regards to his tactical abilities, receiving praise for his decisions in the match. He fielded a team that moved in attack in a 3-4-3 formation, that would morph into a more traditional 4-4-2 pattern when defending. He however downplayed his part in the win in the post-match press conference, preferring to attribute the three points to his men's commitment to winning, and saying that the team's formation would change further according to the necessities.
Selangor head coach P. Maniam (right) and Adam Nor Azlin following their match against Pulau Pinang. Photo by Twitter user @wanfakhrul23
This Friday they have a sterner test however, playing at the Selayang Municipal Stadium again against promotion side Melaka United FC in their second league match. This will definitely be the acid test for Selangor's challenges this season, whether they can go toe to toe against more formidable sides.
After all, Selangor's problem has never really been in the talent department. Rather it's their motivation and talent development that have always been left wanting.
And it is this aspect that Maniam must work on this season, not just for the sake of his young squad, but also for the sake of the Red Giants' longevity. The lack of state funds means that FAS will have to start working on their marketing and financial acumen, something they have taken for granted for a long time, and this will be a slightly easier job to undertake in Malaysia with a competitive, attractive and most importantly winning squad.
Any slip ups will be pounced upon by a growing section of their frustrated fans, who have embarked on a drive to institute fan ownership at the club and privatise it. Which is not a bad idea in all fairness, but not something that the long-serving FAS board stalwarts will take lying down.
NOTABLE TRANSFERS (as at 25/1/2017)
The Red Giants are among the MSL teams which have lost the most players in the pre-season. Their financial uncertainties led to the exodus of captain Shahrom Kalam, forward Abdul Hadi Yahya and midfielder Hafiz Kamal to Perak, while Nazmi Faiz, Hazwan Bakri and R. Gopinathan all joined JDT. Meanwhile defender Azmi Muslim joined PKNS, while Liberian forward Patrick 'Ronaldinho' Wleh returned there following the end of his loan spell. Argentine forward Mauro Olivi was released.
Indonesian winger Andik Vermansah, who was commended for having reiterated his loyalty to the club despite the financial woes, however had to be dropped from the squad due to the injury he suffered in the recent AFF Cup. But FAS retained him in their books, and expects to register him in the squad again in the June transfer window.
The Red Giants meanwhile signed former players Francis Forkey Doe and Afiq Azmi, and two new foreign players; Romanian winger Victoraș Astafei and Brazilian midfielder Juliano Mineiro. The latter two were reportedly contracted only until the June transfer window. Maniam has been particularly critical of the quality of foreign players attending trial for Selangor, and took quite sometime to decide on the final two foreign slots.
They have also secured a one-year loan deal for Melaka United's young striker Nurshamil Abdul Ghani, the 2015 FAM Cup topscorer.
Interestingly, they have also signed a former player who has spent the 2016 season playing in the semi-pro leagues; 31-year old defender Fairuz Abdul Aziz, who had earlier played for the Red Giants in two separate stints.
Among the youth players promoted to the first team are winger Syahmi Safari, and defender Kannan Kalaiselvan.
Syahmi Safari. Photo by Hazrin Mohd Zaidun/CSN
Meanwhile, they managed to retain the services of all three of their goalkeepers, former captain Razman Roslan who has now been appointed as captain again, Adam Nor Azlin, defenders Bunyamin Umar, Raimi Mohd Nor, Rizal Fahmi Rosid and Ugo Ukah, as well as midfielder Veenod Subramaniam.
In: Francis Doe (Felda), Afiq Azmi (Negeri Sembilan), Victoraș Astafei (FC Botoșani), Juliano Mineiro (Kashiwa Reysol), Nurshamil Abd Ghani (loan from Melaka), Abdul Halim Zainal (KL), Satish Krishnan (PKNS), Sarkunan Krishnansamy (Selangor youth), Kannan Kalaiselvan (Selangor youth), Badrul Amin Rusalan (Selangor youth), Arunasalam Namathevan (Selangor youth), Syahmi Safari (Selangor youth), Faizzudin Abidin (Selangor youth), Amirul Ashraf (Selangor youth).
Out: Mauro Olivi (release), Patrick Ronaldinho Wleh (loan end), Abdul Hadi Yahya (Perak), Shahrom Kalam (Perak), Hafiz Kamal (Perak), Azmi Muslim (PKNS), Hazwan Bakri (JDT), Nazmi Faiz (JDT), R. Gopinathan (JDT).
Selangor full squad for the 2017 season
The Red Giants played a number of pre-season friendlies, beginning with a goalless draw against Sime Darby FC, then a 2-1 win over PDRM, a 2-0 win against Terengganu, followed by a 1-0 defeats to Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya Rangers FC.
Although the Red Giants and their youngsters played turned in an eye-catching performance against Pulau Pinang, it takes more than just one good match to make a whole season. P. Maniam is a coach with a lot of potential, but he needs to be helped by FAS' effort to secure the funds and sponsorships, and in trying to avoid any more internal disputes.
If that can be achieved, and Maniam can get his men, and boys, to play for him, Selangor can be expected to finish in an upper mid-table finish.