In 2016, Shahrul Saad was named in Ong Kim Swee's final squad for the AFF Suzuki Cup that year but went as an inexperienced and still polishing his game on the pitch. Being used in two positons, defensive midfielder and centre back also did not help his cause.
Fast forward two years later and once again Shahrul has managed to earn himself a place in the Malaysia squad for the 2018 edition, this time under the tutelage of Tan Cheng Hoe. One of the only eight players to be retained from the last tournament that saw Malaysia crashed out in the group stage in Myanmar, a lot has changed for Shahrul.
Now settling on just being a centre back, Shahrul has gone from strength to strength and has firmly established himself as one of Malaysia's best centre backs, nailing down a permanent first team spot in the process.
"Beating Myanmar is the result of the team's hard work. It was sweet revenge after what we went through in 2016. The 3-0 win was the best that we played in the tournament. To score three times and without reply is a good momentum to take into the semi-final. I hope we can maintain the performance in the next game," Shahrul told Goal.
The result that meant Malaysia managed to progress from the group stage into the knockout phase of the competition, an improvement from the outing two years ago. A meeting against the highly fancied Thailand team awaits next and Malaysia will need Shahrul to be at his best to fend off the tough opponent.
Shahrul himself put in an incredible shift in the final group match against Myanmar. The 25-year-old did not put a single foot wrong the entire match and was arguably Malaysia's best player on the night. When he finally retires from international duty many years down the road, this match could be looked back upon at the one match where he comes of age at international level.
Yet, decision makers went with Aidil Zafuan as the man of the match against Myanmar, a decision that looked difficult to comprehend considering the disparity in the performance between the two players in the same match. Aidil was good but Shahrul's performance was just a notch higher.
"I can't deny that this is the best I've played in the shirt. From the first minute to the last, we were at it. I hope that this isn't the limit and we can even reach the final. But individual awards are very subjective. It's not a big concern for me."
"Congratulations to Aidil and I'm happy to be playing alongside him. What is important is how the team plays and whoever wins, is a win for the team," he added.
When Saturday's first leg against Thailand at Bukit Jalil National Stadium rolls around, the same 100% Shahrul is need by Cheng Hoe and Malaysia to stop the irrepressible Thais who has tournament's top scorer Adisak Kraisorn within their ranks as well as up and coming hotshot Supachai Jaided.
Follow Goal Malaysia on Instagram