BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
University side UKM FC head coach Sulaiman Hussin can be described as the few remaining coaches in Malaysia who are steadfast in their insistence on doing more than making sure that their team win.
Having made a college education or degree a requirement in the players he signed to his roster, he is also always ready to field local players over their foreign counterparts.
And no one is going to criticise this, so long as he produced the goods. Playing in the Premier League for the first time ever this season, the Varsity Boys secured safety, before reaching the final of the inaugural edition of the Challenge Cup.
The way they played in their first leg final match against Terengganu FC II on Monday typified the former Kuala Lumpur player's mentality.
The sky opened up just before the match and would not let up well past the final whistle, rendering the fragile Shah Alam Stadium pitch slippery and pockmarked from early on, but his side battled hard in the match. In the first half they had to come back from a goal down through Nigerian forward Michael Ijezie's strike, and started the second piling on the pressure on the visitors, buoyed by a boisterous 500-strong crowd, comprising of mostly students from the university that they represent; the National University of Malaysia.
The Turtles soon caved in from the relentless midfield pressing, with their own midfielder Sebastien Thuriere knocking in an own goal to give the underdogs an unlikely lead in the 73rd minute. However, Sulaiman's charges was caught napping, and conceded a quick equaliser just two minutes later. The match would end tied at 2-2.
UKM-Terengganu II match highlights
Speaking in the post-match press conference, Sulaiman remarked of his pride at the way his charges defied the poor conditions to play their usual game.
"I never thought much of the supposed home ground advantage, moreso with the weather we had just now. I am proud of the way the boys played although we could only get a draw. They came back from a goal down, and even led the game for a short while.
"They started the game needing quite sometime to adjust to the conditions, so I told them at halftime that this could not go on; we needed to attack from the start in the second half. Even though the pitch was not conducive, I still wanted them to play an open game; to make short passes.
"But the tie is still very much open, and we'll go to Kuala Terengganu for the second leg to win the tie and the cup," he explained.
According to the trainer, the absence of two of his foreign players; Nam Se-in and Redouane Zerzouri, due to injuries became a source of further delight for him, as the local players replacing them in the starting line-up turned in admirable performances.
"I only fielded two of my foreign guys just now because the other two are still injured. In their stead, I picked two local boys who had not played in a long while.
"And credit to them, they took their chance and ran with it; they produced good performances. Of course I want Se-in and Redouane to recover in time for the second leg, but I'm confident that should the worst outcome happen, the local boys can impress. After all, this is their chance to be scouted by top teams next season," Sulaiman explained earnestly.
The second leg will take place next Monday, with the records favouring Tengku Hazman Raja Hassan's charges. The two teams have met five teams this season including the latest clash; with the Turtles winning three encounters and the remaining two ending in a draw.
But maybe, just maybe, this time victory will be on the side of the team that strives to do more than just win matches.
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