BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
The head coach of Premier League newcomers National University of Malaysia FC (UKM) Sulaiman Hussin has a lot to do ahead of the 2018 season.
Having guided the university side to the second place in the 2017 FAM Cup and promotion, Sulaiman and the Varsity Boys now have to venture into a new territory for them; the M-League.
Playing in the second tier for the first time ever, the club will now have to employ foreign signings in order to bolster the squad.
But the former Kuala Lumpur player does not want to rush into hiring imports, as there are several considerations that he has to take into account, as he told Goal last week.
On top of his oft-mentioned philosophy of requiring his boys to undergo or have received tertiary education, Sulaiman has to consider the dynamics of the new signings, as well as the impact on the club coffers.
"I haven't signed any foreign players at the moment, but several players have joined us in the friendlies. There's Geylang International's Shahfiq Ghani, but I have a few things to consider. If I can find a solid African centre back, I can field a local player as a striker because we have a good midfielder.
"If I were to sign him, I need to see whether I can use him as a marksman. In the meantime he has not been training with us, we only call him up when we have pre-season friendlies.
"We've also received a call from [Singapore international] Hafiz Sujad who's interested in joining us, but we already have midfielders. But I haven't signed any foreign players yet. We're not a big club that can afford to sign big names just by watching video recordings of them playing," explained Sulaiman when met after their friendly against Felda United last Saturday.
However, he is keen on a number of foreign players, including Japanese midfielder Ryutaro Karube, who in 2017 played for Perseru Serui in Indonesia's Liga 1. In his youth, Karube studied at and played for Meiji University.
"I intend to keep my words that my players must be [university] students, regardless whether they are current students or have graduated. I want UKM students to also get the chance to play.
"Before he (Karube) played in Indonesia, he graduated from a university. In Indonesia he played for Perseru Serui, and he was one of the six best Liga 1 foreign players in 2017. I will most probably sign him," noted the long-serving UKM boss.
But at the core, his squad will be composed of the same undergraduate-players who won them promotion in the 2017 season, and he did not need long to finalise the signings of local players.
"I've made up my mind on our local players" said Sulaiman, "and most of my squad has been retained, 18 of them. We only had a 24-man roster (in 2017), so only six were dropped. On top of this, we've also signed a few local players, but they're our former boys."
Another aspect that the coach needs to keep an eye on is of course the club's finances, he added.
"One oother reason we're taking our time in signing foreign players is our finances. We're not a big club with available funds. I have to keep checking our balance to see what we can afford.
"We have to go up against moneybags in the league such as Felcra and Felda, but you can see just now we could go to toe to toe against them, and [UKM lost] only because I had to let all my boys play," noted Sulaiman.
Limited finances and strict adherence to policies aside, the Varsity Boys have set a lofty range of targets for the coming season.
"I want my boys to put up a fight but it's only our first season (in the second tier), so we want to survive at the end of the season. Maybe (then) we can attract players from the national teams set-up to join us in the following season.
"In the second season we can expect to be sustainable, with experience. At the moment most of my boys have never played in the Premier League. Admittedly we need time, maybe in three or four games you can see whether we are prepared or not.
"But personally, I want the team to challenge for a top five finish, and who knows, with some luck we'll qualify for the Malaysia Cup," he explained.
On the individual level, Sulaiman is relishing the chance to lead a team in the Premier League for the first time.
"This is my first experience in the big leagues. I have to go up against established and foreign coaches.
"This will be a challenge for me, to guide the team towards sustainability," said Sulaiman.
Apart from the players, the club are also looking to finalise their decision on the home ground. In the third tier they played at the university's mini stadium in Bangi, Selangor, but the ground does not meet the Premier League requirements.
"The Kuala Lumpur FA is positive [to allow UKM to use the KLFA Stadium], while the Tuanku Abdul Rahman Stadium in Seremban too is a possibility, as the Yang di-Pertuan Besar (monarch) of Negeri Sembilan, Tuanku Muhriz Tuanku Munawir is also the chancellor of the university.
"But I prefer the KLFA Stadium in Cheras as it's situated right across the UKM Hospital. That way we can draw the support of the university staff and undergraduates," noted the coach.
He too made a revelation at the end of the interview. The club have appointed former Malaysia international and Sime Darby FC captain Juzaili Samion as his assistant coach.
Coincidentally, Juzaili captained the Giant Killers in their FAM Cup final matches against the Varsity Boys back in October, with Sime Darby emerging as champions, edging UKM 3-2 on aggregate.
Sime Darby were supposed to be promoted to the second tier alongside UKM, with Juzaili himself saying he would like to continue playing next year when asked by Goal just before the final. But in November the club decided to shutter its professional football team, and it seems that the 36-year old has decided to quietly hang up his boots and move into coaching.
Juzaili (left) and Sulaiman (second from right) in the FAM Cup first leg final press conference in October.
"I want to develop young coaches, that's why I hired Juzaili as my assistant, Azlan Hussain (fitness trainer). They're all around my age, in our 40's. We're a group of young coaches.
"Malaysian clubs tend to fire and hire the same coaches, and what happens is [young and new] guys like us find it hard to get our foot in the door," pointed out Sulaiman.