BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
Pulau Pinang have not had a good return to the Super League. After a six-year absence from the top tier including a number of seasons in the FAM Cup (FAM League back then), they finished the 2015 Premier League as runners up, and followed fellow northern side back to the top tier in 2016.
However, the new dawn anticipated by the Panthers' faithful in the MSL never appeared. They spent the first half of the 2016 season being taught the bitter realities of the top tier, collecting just six points out of 11 matches, and stood rooted to the bottom of the standings.
The same man who guided them to promotion in the previous season, head coach Jacksen F. Tiago was given a gardening leave and then his severance cheque, and the Croatian CEO and head coach combination of Bojan Hodak and Nenad Bacina was hired in the mid-season break, with the aim of rescuing the island side from relegation, and trying to improve the professionalism level in the team's operations.
Just before round 11 of the 2016 MSL, the Panthers (11th, 6 points) were in a three-way battle for the remaining Malaysia Cup spots against Pahang (10th, 9) and Sarawak (12th, 6). They were set to play Felda United at home in week 11, needing a win to book a spot. It was an uphill battle indeed, with the Fighters one of the title challengers at the time, and they fell to a 2-1 defeat in front of their own fans. With Sarawak defeating Perak 3-2 in the same round, Pulau Pinang missed out on the Malaysia Cup.
This season, their fortunes have not looked any different. When the Pulau Pinang FA decided to part ways with Hodak and Bacina at the end of the 2016 season, they hired famed former Bengaluru FC manager Ashley Westwood, who was handed another lofty target of improving the outfit.
Another disappointment ensued.
The players reportedly balked at the Englishman's rigorous training and demands, and Westwood was given the sack after just eight league matches, with the Panthers having collected only two points during his brief tenure.
Former Selangor player and boss Zainal Abidin Hassan was brought in as replacement, and a 1-0 away win in round 9, coincidentally against Felda United, at first hinted that they might just sneak into the 2017 Malaysia Cup.
However, that hope was dashed when they were hammered 5-1 by Kelantan at home in the following round, which meant that they needed a miracle to pip Sarawak to 11th and qualify.
In last with five points, they needed to defeat league leaders JDT at home with a huge margin, while at the same time hoping that 11th-placed Sarawak would lose at home against Kelantan.
2017 would be another year without Malaysia Cup action for Pulau Pinang.
But there may just be a silver lining to their failure to qualify for the cup, just like in 2016.
Thanks to competitions organiser Football Malaysia LLP (FMLLP's) decision to run the cup concurrently with the second half of the league beginning in 2016, Pulau Pinang will now have the advantage of having a less hectic schedule and a better-rested squad than the other 11 MSL sides that will take part in the cup.
Last season, when the second stretch of the league (as well as the Malaysia Cup) kicked off, they went on a five-match unbeaten streak in the league and collected 14 points from 10 matches, just enough to finish the season one spot above the relegation zone.
They now seem to have the same advantage, and it is up to Zainal to chart Pulau Pinang's way through the fixtures using that advantage. Furthermore, the mid-season transfer window will open again soon, and he may be allowed to make one or two changes.