BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
Kedah coach Aidil Sharin Sahak arrived at the Darul Aman Stadium last Wednesday looking not much differently from his younger charges.
Not having changed into his official club training attire yet, he was dressed breezily in a grey t-shirt and a pair of black track bottoms, a tumbler in one hand, the smell of coffee wafting from it.
While a lot of professional coaches in Malaysian football exude an air of calm authoritativeness while going about their business, the 42-year old trainer's confident stride from the car park area hints at a more youthful man. Someone unfamiliar with Malaysian football might have even mistaken him for one of the team's veteran players.
I greeted the Singaporean trainer, having talked him into agreeing to a sit-down interview the day before, and he straightaway looked around for a place we both could sit down, suggesting that he had not forgotten our appointment.
We decided on a bench situated to the side of the stadium tunnel, in full view of the pitch. Several of his players were already on it, practicing their touches and shooting, in preparation for their FA Cup final encounter against Perak on Saturday.
The week leading up to the final was a little peculiar for the Red Eagles. The previous Sunday, Kedah, needing a win against relegation-threatened Felda United to ensure a third-place finish in the Super League, were instead handed a 5-1 hammering by the hosts in Jengka, on the final league matchday. They finished their first league campaign under Aidil in fourth place instead.
Coincidentally, they had advanced to the FA Cup final by edging Felda in the semi-finals on the away goal rule, after the tie ended 3-3 on aggregate.
"Our [league] objective this season is to finish in the top five actually. For a new team such as ours, with new players such as Zaquan (Malaysia forward Zaquan Adha), Thanabalan (former Malaysia U-23 star Thanabalan Nadarajah) and Syahrul Azwari, to be in the top four is a reasonable achievement. Unfortunately, we did not make it happen in the last game (against Felda). I can't fault anyone.
Zaquan Adha. Photo from Getty
"And now on to the cup, where our target was only to reach the second round, but we've gone beyond that to reach the final. Praise Allah, I'm very honoured to be part of the team that have reached the final. As a new coach coming into a new league, I knew it wasn't going to be easy. Credit to the boys, the coaching staff and the management who have made it happen," remarked the Singaporean.
His move across the Causeway from Singapore's Home United, where last year he helped them win the ASEAN Zone final of the AFC Cup, has also opened his eyes to the realities of Malaysian football and competitions.
I reminded him of the incident that took place in what was only his second competitive match at Kedah, coincidentally against Perak as well, on February 8, to which Aidil responded with an apology.
"I have to apologise for my behaviour in that game," said the former Singapore international with an almost sheepish grin. "It was an emotional game, we wanted to win and the game was tight. We had the momentum at that point but the game had to be stopped.
"As an outsider and a new coach, I need to adapt to the league. It is normal for mistakes to happen and hopefully things will improve. But they have to remember that certain decisions can cost us (coaches) our job if we lose, and as coaches we also have to help the competition and the referees improve."
Aidil is also hoping that improvements can take place within the club in the coming years, noting that he only got to pick their foreign players before the season began.
"There's a lot that are still missing [from the squad], that we can improve on. Yes we are in the final, but we need to have very, very fit players. Football these days are about playing a fast game, and if you have a fit team, you can last the full 90 minutes and challenge any team. This is an aspect that I've been trying to change bit by bit, it's my main objective. The team's current statistics are not good enough. Admittedly, it isn't an easy job as money and the facilites play a big part. It takes years, longer than one whole season.
"The players' mentality is also an important issue. The local players show too much respect to their seniors, something that has to be changed. On the pitch, there are no age barriers, everyone has to be on their toes.
"The club are changing, they are looking to recoup the losses incurred in the past years, so I have to accept that in order to give the board time. Not everyone can be like [six consecutive times Super League champions ] JDT. I hope things can change slowly, perhaps in the next five years. It's not easy to spend and change drastically; what I want is for the club to be sustainable. I as a coach has to adapt [to the financial limitations]," he noted.
For the time being, Aidil is focused on improving himself as a coach. He most recently attended an AFC Pro Diploma coaching course conducted by the Malaysian FA (FAM) alongside several other Malaysian club coaches, and was struck by the enthusiasm displayed by several of his Malaysian counterparts.
"We need the experience of the senior coaches like Dollah (Pahang boss Dollah Salleh) and Irfan (former Terengganu FC head coach Irfan Bakti) because they command the players' respect. But the new, younger coaches can come in to implement new methodologies and tactics, something not normally done by the older counterparts. In the end it depends on the clubs and their boards, and the coaches' philosophies, and if they sit down together before the season starts, then things will go smoothly.
"When I attended the course, the younger Malaysian coaches were very active. [Kelantan head coach] Yusri Che Lah for example was very eager to learn, he constantly asked me questions. With the younger coaches coming in, there will be a lot of good coaches [in Malaysian football].
"I prefer to take the good from everyone I've met, even those outside of the footballing circle. I enjoy watching [Manchester City manager] Pep Guardiola, Tottenham Hotspur manager (Mauricio Pochettino) who are always trying new things. But this doesn't mean that I can implement everything they do and replicate their successes, because at the end of the day what I do needs to suit my team. My preference is to play fast football, not long balls as some people have mistakenly described it, which can surprise the opponents in a game. I want my team to break fast like Liverpool and Manchester City, who have done a lot to change the game. I am learning to implement this, and to do this I need the fittest and fastest players. It takes time for this to happen, and hopefully the players will understand this. Liverpool themselves took three years to implement this. While winning and losing are part and parcel of football, the most important thing is for the club to keep on improving," he explained.
Asked about his future, Aidil revealed that his contract with Kedah ends at the end of 2020, but he dreams of taking over as the Singapore national team boss.
Before parting ways, I asked him about the success had by Singaporean teams, coaches and players in Malaysian competitions. For example, his team will feature another Singaporean, centre back Shakir Hamzah, on Saturday, while the Singapore team are still the second most successful team in Malaysia's Cup history with 24 titles, even though the island republic have pulled out from Malaysian competitions since 1994.
Malaysia vs Singapore on March 20 2019. Photo by DS Regime
"I hope I don't sound condescending towards Malaysians," said Aidil tentatively. "The country has a lot of potential due to the fact that it has a bigger base than Singapore, but the difference is in the work ethics. For example, I won't be satisfied if the performance is not good, even if we win.
"And we in Singapore are provided with a lot of courses, not just footballing courses; on how to manage, how to put forward ideas, team-building, staff management, and we get to implement them in football. This in turn makes us not necessarily better, but fresher. We are constantly upgrading, we don't stop where we are.
"To an extent, the stereotype that we Singaporeans are workaholic is true. The pace is very fast and everything is about money. We are never satisfied with what we have."
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