But as he succinctly pointed out, nothing has changed as far as his outlook on Malaysian football is concerned and with his feet firmly on the ground, he hopes that the national side will tread new paths in the upcoming World Cup qualifiers as well as the SEA Games in Thailand later in the year.
QUESTION: Let us begin this interview with a look back to the 39th Merdeka Tournament with you as the head coach of a side which had won the title for the first time since 1993. What were your thoughts at the start of the tournament?
ANSWER: The first thing when I was asked to prepare the team was that it was an excellent opportunity for my Under-23 players to get at least three matches – at the most five - under their belt. It is not easy to get games at this point in time and with the excellent chance of playing against Laos, Myanmar and then Lesotho, I was just looking at getting some games for the U23 lads in preparation for the SEA Games.
Q: You came into the tournament at an awkward time as you had already drawn your programme to go to Slovakia before you were asked to put up a team. How did that affect you?
A: As you know, preparation and timing in football is everything. I was a little concerned as to whether the lads can deliver what is expected as they had to play several tough games in Slovakia before returning to play in the Merdeka Tournament. But the spirit in the team was good and even though, jet lag was a concern, still the players wanted to show something and that was important in the final equation.
Q: Give us a run through of the first game against Laos.
A: We had to play against some tough opponents in the competition and as such a decision was taken that we needed reinforcements. That was the reason why we took on three senior players. The first match against Laos, you could see that the lads were a little tired after the long 23 hours flight. But I can see something in the team when they played together and they became compact - they did not want to let the nation down. And from that first win against Laos, they gained confidence for their next match.
Q: And against Myanmar?
A: Well, we played with only ten men. And at this level, that counts for a lot of difference playing with a man short. But I was surprised by how the players cope with the situation where they played for almost the entire game with just ten men and they not only created chances but they scored a goal. The 2-1 defeat was not at all disappointing. I was very proud of the players.
Q: Would you say that the game against Myanmar was the pivotal point in Malaysia’s campaign?
A: Most certainly. It is the turning point in how I look at the team. I can see that the team has the quality to be champions.
Q: What about the game against Lesotho?
A: It was a very difficult and tough game against Lesotho as all matches against African side are. But the team showed confidence and they were patient although I must say that I was a little surprise by the 4-0 scoreline. I did not expect that.
Q: Against Singapore in the semi-finals?
A: I believe that it was our best game of the whole tournament – even better than in the final (against Myanmar). It was not the best of conditions but the players were cool under pressure and in the end, that made the difference although on hindsight, we could have scored a few more goals.
Q: And against Myanmar in the final?
A: By then, I knew that we will be champions simply because of the camaraderie in the team. The players were all pumped up and there was a synergy which has not been there for quite some time. It was all the right mix.
Q: Has winning the Merdeka Tournament changed anything?
A: Not as far as I’m concerned. My feet are always on the ground. It was important for us to win the Merdeka Tournament not only because of the Merdeka celebrations but also there was a need to show that Malaysian football is not dead and buried. It is still very much alive and kicking.
Q: What next from here?
A: The national team will be going to Australia for a playing tour. The team is essentially made up of Under-23 players as well as the additions of four senior lads. I’ve worked with older lads before and they will be there to guide the youngsters. The trip is part of our preparation for the World Cup qualifiers next month as well as for the SEA Games later in the year.
Q: What will be your expectation against Bahrain for the World Cup qualifiers?
A: We must realised that as far as the ranking is concerned, Bahrain is 5th in Asia while we are ranked 31st. That is a long way off. We have to be realistic and although I want to win, my only hope is for the players to show a good account of themselves as they had done during the Merdeka Tournament. That is very important.
Q: What will be your policy for the future?
A: We have to stress on the need to have a national ‘B’ team. We need to keep some of the players who are good players but quite can’t make the cut for the ‘A’ team yet. We need to keep these players together as it is important that we do not lose them. This team can then take part in the LG Cup in Vietnam or the Grand Royal Challenge Cup in Myanmar. They need international experience and will form the back-up to the ‘A’ team. The gap with the Under-23 lads is just too far, so we will need this buffer and that is what I will be pushing for.
Q: After winning the Merdeka Tournament, do you feel the pressure to deliver?
A: No, not at all. We have to start to realise that we need to build a team and for that to happen we need to do it together with the Under-23 lads forming the core. It will be a lot to ask for them to win the World Cup but one thing which I can guarantee is that these players will give nothing short of 100% in every game that they play. For the SEA Games, my personal target is to make the final and win the gold.(Courtesy: www.fam.org.my)