18-year old Mukhairi Ajmal Mahadi was recently featured on Goal NxGn 2020 list for Malaysia, having garnered attention for his achievements in 2019.
In what was a successful season for the Tunku Mahkota Ismail Sports School (SSTMI) graduate, he signed for Super League side PKNP FC, before making his league and first team debut, against PKNS FC, on February 23. In the Malaysia Cup he would make four appearances, netting his first ever competitive senior goal in the club's quarter-final tie against Kedah.
At the international level, he helped his country finish runners up in the AFF U-18 Youth Championship, before they qualified for the 2020 AFC U-19 Championship finals. Upon the conclusion of the season, he was offered a place at Selangor, to play for their reserve team in the Premier League.
The fourth child out of five siblings recalled that his love for the sport was first sparked by his father; Mahadi Maalim. Mahadi was an amateur player who played for his village, Kampung Batu Enam near the former mining town of Sungai Lembing, Pahang, and as a young boy, he would go watch his father play.
"My father was a midfielder, so maybe that subconsciously influenced my preference too!" he posited in an interview with Goal on Monday.
Playing for his secondary school, his talent got spotted and he was picked to represent his district and the state of Pahang at age level.
He then attended the Pahang Malaysian Sports School, and trained there until he was 15, before transferring to SSTMI in Johor for the final two years of his formal secondary education.
Upon graduating at the end of 2018, he waited for an offer from his state team Pahang which never arrived, but in the end was given an offer by PKNP, which he gladly accepted.
"Maybe Pahang overlooked me because I went to school out of state," noted the teenager. "So my family suggested that I tried my luck somewhere else.
"I was then told that [PKNP coach] Abu Bakar Fadzim was interested in me, and he could get me playing time in the Super League. Needless to say, I was thrilled because I had only been targeting a place in a President Cup team (U-21). I packed up my things and left immediately for Manjung to join their training, where I signed a 1+1 contract."
He made headlines when making his Super League debut against PKNS at age 17 years, three months and 16 days, coming on as a substitute in the 67th minute, but admitted that he was a nervous wreck throughout the encounter.
"I realised that at the top level, you need to read the game more and your decision-making need to be quick because young players would lose out on the strengths aspect.
"As someone who liked to have the ball, that was going to be more difficult," noted Mukhairi.
He would receive only one more league appearance by Abu Bakar, but thanks to his guidance and the tips from two more senior players on the team; Hafiz Ramdan and Hafiz Kamal, the youngster would go on to make four appearances in the Malaysia Cup.
Turning professional and getting paid for playing football was a revelation, but Mukhairi remained a dedicated son of a family with modest means. He told Goal that he still sends money to his parents everytime he receives his salary. Even when he splurged, it was on something utilitarian; a more expensive pair of boots.
Biar lah saya rasa kesakitan ini,biarlah mereka tersenyum sentiasa ❤️ pic.twitter.com/7v5rBdzZFo— Mukhairi (@Mukhairi_Ajmal) January 6, 2020
"Up until then I had only been wearing decently-priced footwear, so when I got my first pay I went and got myself a pair of Nike Mercurial. They didn't last long though!" he explained with a laugh.
His exploits at PKNP did not go unnoticed, and before the 2019 season ended he was approached by Selangor, who planned to sign him to their reserve team. Despite receiving offers from Felda United, Kedah and Pulau Pinang, he was attracted by the possibility of still getting competitive minutes with the Red Giants, something he is less likely to obtain if he had signed for any of the three clubs, who have no reserve team in the second tier. The likelihood of receiving a call-up to the first team of a major team was also a plus point, so Mukhairi signed a three-year deal ahead of the 2020 season.
He only had praise for his new club, who according to him looks after the players' welfare. The reserve team players are provided meals by the club, as well as comfortable housing in a Shah Alam neighbourhood. His new teammates comprised Mokhtar Dahari Academy graduates, many of them his Malaysia U-19 teammates.
One of them is the country's most exciting prospects; Luqman Hakim Shamsudin who also happens to be one of the best players he likes to play with, as well as a good friend.
"I first met him as a primary school boy, and the next time we met again was after I graduated," Mukhairi recalled. "By then he was a changed player; he was much quicker on the ball and he knew how to utilise that speed.
"As teammates he also knows what I like to do; sending through balls to the strikers, and having someone as quick as he is on the same side makes my job easy.
"I am so grateful that he is with me at Selangor, and my chemistry with him is something I want to improve upon. Off the pitch, we're good friends too, and banter a lot."
Asked about his favourite player, the midfielder admitted to being a big fan of World Cup winner Mesut Ozil, who plays for his favourite club, Arsenal.
"I just love the way he plays, especially his through balls, which is something that I try to emulate. His one-by-ones against goalkeepers are amazing. Whatever people say about Arsenal, I don't care. I love watching Ozil play for Arsenal and I'm such a big fan of his.
"He had fallen out of favour under Unai [Emery], but it's good to see him receiving playing time under [new manager Mikel] Arteta," he explained.
For now, Mukhairi is anxiously awaiting return to action, after Malaysian competitions were suspended due to the global Covid-19 outbreak.
"I hope the 2020 season can be resumed, even if matches are played without fans. I'm getting rusty and restless already. Sure, the lawn of the house is big enough, but having to train separately instead of together with my teammates is kind of demoralising.
"Some of the guys who live with their family have even started cooking and delivering food to pass the time, but I doubt my cooking is fit for selling," joked the teenager, ending the interview.