By Rizal Hashim
When former Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier took time from his busy schedule to conduct a
coaching seminar in Kuala Lumpur in early 2010, he was eager to take a closer look at the future of Malaysian football.
Having to work with the Malaysian youth squads for his practical sessions throughout the week, the Frenchman’s eyes were trained on two particular players from Harimau Muda A, then coached by Azraai Khor Abdullah.
Ahmad Shakir Ali and Izzaq Faris Ramlan stood out not only due to their role as the team’s focal point in attack but also thanks to their physique and subtle touch – a rare combo for a Malaysian striker.
As France Under-21 coach Eric Mombaerts conducted the training sessions under the watchful eye of Houllier, Shakir and Izzaq were shown the finer points in the art of goal-scoring.
“They have to learn to move better but at first glance, they have the physique and potential,” said Houllier to this writer.
But while Izzaq went on to be part of K. Rajagobal’s AFF Cup-winning squad later that year and Ong Kim Swee’s victorious SEA Games team in Jakarta 2011, Shakir’s career took a downward spiral.
The attacker who was good enough to take on Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans in the two friendlies against Manchester United in July 2009 on the strength of his reputation as Harimau Muda’s top goalpoacher, suddenly went below the radar.
His decision to move back to Kedah to be closer to his sick father, not long after the rendezvous with Houllier, seemed to be the right one then. Little did Ahmad Shakir know he would not figure much in Ahmad Yusof’s plan.
A faltering start to the season saw Ahmad Yusof being given the axe but any hopes of Ahmad Shakir getting back into the Canaries’ line-up under Wan Jamak Hassan did not materialise.
Failure to cement a place at Kedah denied Ahmad Shakir the opportunity to earn Kim Swee’s trust in the pre-Olympic squad.
Desperate to get out of the rut at the age 22, Ahmad Shakir sought the advice of mentor and Negeri Sembilan coach, Azraai, who by then had added another Malaysia Cup to his collection.
It was only natural that Azraai, upon losing the services of Malaysia Cup final hero Hairuddin Omar to Armed Forces, saw Ahmad Shakir as a perfect replacement.
“Ahmad Shakir was a fringe player with Kedah in 2008, alongside the likes of Faizal Abu Bakar. When we were hit by injuries, we decided to promote him to the senior team by putting him alongside Marlon Alex James.
“He was later called up for a permanent slot in Harimau Muda and we reluctantly agreed to release him,” recalled Azraai.
In an unexpected twist of event, Azraai was made the chief coach of Harimau Muda A in late 2009after K. Rajagobal was appointed to take charge of the senior team.
But when Ahmad Shakir decided to move back to Alor Star, Azraai relented.
Now that he has survived a bad patch, Ahmad Shakir is ready to re-establish himself as a key player on the international stage.
This was amply illustrated by his second international goal on Wednesday after coming in as a
substitute at the Rizal Memorial Stadium in Manila.
Receiving a pass from Pelita Jaya’s Safee Sali, Ahmad Shakir lured defender Jason Sabio into making a sliding tackle on the edge of the box, turned before sending a well-placed left-foot shot beyond Neil Etheridge’s despairing dive, with a few seconds left before the final whistle as Malaysia drew 1-1 with the Philippines.
Azraai is backing Ahmad Shakir’s prodigious talent to fully blossom this season, what with his
partnership with Cameroonian Jean Emmanuel Effa Owona causing havoc on the opponents’ box.
“He has always created an impression, whether it was with Harimau Muda in Slovakia or in Kedah. He combines physical presence with a goal-scoring touch, a rare quality for Malaysian strikers. I’m happy that he has rediscovered his true form,” said Azraai, who took Kedah to three titles back-to-back in 2007 and 2008.
Negeri Sembilan will not be the only beneficiary of Ahmad Shakir’s attacking force.
If he maintains his current form, Ahmad Shakir will vie for a slot in the Malaysian senior team with Safee, Norshahrul Idlan Talaha, Zaquan Adha Abdul Radzak and Abdul Manaf Mamat ahead of this year’s AFF Cup.
It’s a nice problem for Rajagobal to have.