Eastlands Here I Come
November 17, 2009


I’m often asked, when talking about Premier Skills. To which I’ve yet to have the answer for. There were simply too many reasons leading me to applying for the program.
1. I was itching to get back into coaching
2. I needed formal training
3. I wanted to obtain the certificate
4. I have a thing for soccer moms
5. Participants will get free kits and boots
Above all, I believe that I have the potential to become a decent coach someday. For when it comes to playing the game -- and it hurts to actually admit this -- I'm rubbish.

Of course, there are those occasional flashes of immaculate footballing brilliance that I tend to showcase during futsal with my friends. What usually brings me back to the ground, though, is the fact that I could only do so because they are, at times, to put it mildly, equally rubbish.

You look at the best managers of the modern game; Mourinho, Wenger, Scolari, Eriksson… very few had illustrious playing careers. Which goes to show that to mastermind the game, you don’t really have to be that good at playing it. Even the great Maradona struggled in taking his national side into the 2010 World Cup.

That said, given my own dreadful playing career, the stats are on my side.

Premier Skills is a program designed by the English FA where Premier League coaches are sent to various countries worldwide to conduct training sessions with the local coaches for them to then cascade down to their respective communities. A noble effort, in my book. One that got me instantly intrigued. So upon learning that the British Council was organizing one, I applied in a heartbeat.

Supported by FAM, Nike, ESPN, the National Sports Council, the Education Ministry and I believe, Banana Boat sun block (judging by the 18,382 bottles I consumed, to no effect), the program targeted on selecting 40 applicants to experience the fully sponsored 5-day course at the MSN complex in Bukit Jalil. A small pool considering the number of football lovers in our country. So when I got the call, I was so overjoyed I sounded like a Teletubby by the end of the phone conversation.

Expectedly, I felt like the new kid in school on the first day. Most of the other participants had already known each other. Consisting of state, academy, club and school coaches, the majority of them have been in the circuit for a while. So there were, admittedly, these few awkward moments where I had to just dive in to a huge group laugh without knowing the head and tail of the joke. Before drifting away into laughing alone.

But I was quite fortunate. The guys were a warm bunch. One bad joke after another, it wasn’t long before they opened up and gradually absorbed me into their groups. It does help that I have the capacity to speak in different dialects. Which made it easier for me to get along with the East Coast and Northern guys. And harder when I’m hanging out with them both at once. Where I’ll end up talking like a Penangite to a Kelantanese.

I thought we had the finest group of coaches possibly assembled to facilitate the program. Headed by Bob Glozier of the West Ham Academy, the other coaches were Mark Gaitskell of Fulham, Lee Collier of Wigan and Mark Philips also of West Ham United. Some of whom who’d previously facilitated the program in Egypt and China.

I was in Mark Philips’s group. A Hammer since forever, Mark is probably the nicest guy you’ll ever meet. There was simply never a dull moment. The man’s passion for the game is incomparable and every bit of it can be seen through the energy he emanates when he’s instructing. So energetic that you’d want to avoid standing too close when talking to him on the pitch. As otherwise, like yours truly, you’ll be drenched from a shower off the gracious gentleman’ salivary glands.

Nevertheless, Mike, if you’re reading this. No, wait, if you manage to switch on the computer, get on the Internet, and then read this, we love you. You’re a top man. The Hammers are alright. Though Man City is always classier.

I was under the impression that the course wouldn’t be too physical. Given that it’s a coaching, rather than playing program, I’d imagined that the bulk of the education would take place in the lecture hall. So looking at the schedule gave me quite a ball-shrinking scare. Throughout the five days, participants are expected to be on the pitch for four hours everyday; under the scorching hot sun.

Two days into the program and a dozen darker tones later, I couldn’t have imagined a better method of carrying out the course. You simply have to go through the drills yourself before you could impose them to your players. For that’s the only way for you to capture the essence and understand the philosophy behind the techniques. The well-crafted structure of their system had taught me the importance of a clear, practical and balanced training program.

Gone will be days of my pointless drills. I shall never make my players juggle the ball with their shoulders anymore.

The last day loomed over us like an unwelcomed mother-in-law. Just as we were getting the hang of ripping and taking the piss on each other, it was time to bid auld lang syne. Drills were learned, friends were made and badges were earned. Not to mention pointing out that "the only club in Manchester is blue" on TV. Thanks for the interview, ESPN.

We’ve all proudly become graduates of Premier Skills Malaysia 2009.

As clichéd as it may sound, what seemed to be the end of a journey, was actually the beginning of a bigger vision. We left for our hometowns with the promise of giving back to the community and eventually, Malaysian football. The privilege that was given to us to undergo the program was only for us to share with the people.

It’s been three weeks now since I first began my role as a coach with the Subang Jaya Community Youth League; with the Under-14 and Under-12 teams. The experience has certainly been a refreshing one and getting involved in football this way has given me a gratification like no other. Plus, the absence of politics in youth football only flourishes the beauty of the game further. Kids would tell you upfront if they hate you for making them run ten rounds.

Before you make them run another two.

Oke Bah Kalau Kau!
November 11, 2009

It was all too fitting, I guess.

I began the year wanting to tour South East Asia. The idea was to spend the long weekends with a trip out of the peninsular, on a shoestring. And by September, I was fortunate enough to have covered Bali, Bangkok, Singapore, Jakarta, Bandung and Hanoi… which is nothing to shout about really. That’s barely half of the ASEAN countries, three of them are in Indonesia and I was in Vietnam for business.

More importantly, I’m missing arguably the region’s most exotic location: Borneo. Third largest in the world, the island boasts lush green rainforests and majestic mountains as natural habitats, providing refuge to some of the planet’s most endangered species. Or at least that was what they wrote on the Internet.

It was quite embarrassing to realize that I’d never been there in my 26 years of living, as a Malaysian. Maybe I was too keen on venturing out of the country just for the sake of it. Maybe I’ve underestimated the stories of those enchanted by the island. Or maybe, I’ve become complacent by the fact that I could go there anytime.

So it was all too fitting, indeed, for me to fly off to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah… with the Godbros.

Tinggi tinggi Gunung Kinabalu, tinggi lagi sayang pada kamu,
Biru biru hujung Kinabalu, tengok dari jauh, hati saya rindu.

Syah apart, none of us had ever been to Borneo, let alone KK. But that’s possibly only because he’s actually from Sabah as otherwise, I doubt he’ll travel beyond Taman Desa. We were quite excited, in essence. Perhaps not knowing what to expect only fuels our anxiety and judging by the extensive itinerary that Ikram had meticulously prepared after inquiring with about 46 Sabahans for the past two months, we knew deep inside that the trip would be epic, and half of the planned activities will not happen.

Upon our arrival at Terminal 2 of the KK International Airport, we were warmly greeted by our self-elected ‘host’ Syah who was actually (and oddly enough) on the same flight.

“Welcome to my turf! Losers!" he howled at our faces as we landed our maiden steps onto the soils of the Land Beneath the Wind. I’m guessing that there is a more customary way for the locals to welcome their guests. The notion was still, nevertheless, embraced.

Kinabalu dekat di Kundasang, banyak sayur boleh pilih pilih
Apa guna pergi luar negeri, naik Kinabalu, hati saya rindu.

After checking in at the Imperial Boutec (great location, by the way), we drove north toward Tanjung Simpang Mengayau near Kudat. Driving through the towns of Tuaran and Kota Belud, the 3-hour journey got me rather immersed in the sights and sounds of Sabah. Mountains and paddy fields paved the way along the road, into the jungles as we approached our destination. On the radio, was Othoe, possibly the state’s most popular DJ, whose tagline is “ATUKOI!" which he’ll shout out randomly; especially when you least expect it. Pretty much explains why Syah enjoys screaming into Ajep’s ears whenever he’s asleep in front of the TV.

Tanjung Simpang Mengayau, otherwise known as the (northern-most) Tip of Borneo, means ‘lingering junction’ where South China Sea ‘lingers’ and meet up with the Sulu Sea. A bit like Uluwatu, overlooking the Indian Ocean in Bali. It’s actually the tip of the wolf’s ear if you look at the map of Sabah. The breathtaking view is only to be witnessed, I suppose. I’m having a hard time describing it. There are just too many words for it. A pointer though: enjoy the sunset with your loved one. A part of me dies a little every time I recall myself being at these places with no less than three guys.

Sumandak sumandak pun ramai menunggu, menari-nari lenggang Sumayau,
Sekali melihat melepak kulitnya, saya jatuh cinta.

A lot has been said about the seafood in Sabah. Legend has it that they are the freshest. And cheapest in the world. Which is true. Unless it’s in downtown KK. Where we went. Where they had almost probably everything from the sea. Except for mermaids. And maybe Nemo. Where we wiped clean four aquariums. Before we nearly went back to the hotel with a gonad less each.

So unless you’re prepared to eat like Jabba the Hut and spend like Mike Tyson, drive a few kilometers away into the suburbs and check out the seafood restaurants there. Those are a bit more humane. Nelayan Restaurant in Bukit Padang is pretty good.

What you can’t find anywhere else but downtown KK, though, are the legendary Roti Cobra and Soto joints we found. Roti Cobra, FYI -- apart from being the greatest culinary creation in history, and as the name implies -- consists of regular Roti Canai initially smoldered with barely cooked sunny side up egg on top to play the role of as the adhesion matter which would later have to endure the wrath of curry and dhal with the option of chicken, beef or mutton. So the sensation endured when eating the first bite is that of twisted harmony where the untouched portion of the Roti is finally matched with the other sides as if fairies are dancing on your tongue. It’s just so good I couldn’t make sense of things anymore. Kedai Makan Islamic dan Hotel (don’t ask) located opposite of Maybank in Kg. Air is the way to go.

Soto in Sabah, on the other hand, comes in a variety of fashions. There’s the light one where the soup opens up a thousand possibilities for you to alter and improvise on the desired taste upon your utilization the condiments on the table. My, kind of badass Soto comes in the unforgiving form that could only be found at Restoran Happy Muslim (again, don’t ask) in Sinsuran. With the perfect combination of spices in the soup and generous portion of chicken or beef garnished with the right amount of herbs and a zing of lemon on top, the fairies you had dancing earlier will reappear and dance on your tongue yet again. Be a bit patient at the restaurant though, it could get a bit packed.

Other notable mentions include Rojak Daging, Ambuyat, Nasi Lalap, Nasi Goreng Liking, Buah Tarap, Kuih Cincin and Syah’s favorite local delicacy, the Spicy Chicken McDeluxe.

Saya sayang sayang Kinabalu, Kaamatan pesta bulan lima,

Sayang sayang kita pergi tamu jalan Tamparuli, hati saya rindu.

You can’t go to KK and not hop on the islands. A mere 30 – 45 minutes boat ride from the Jesselton Point would take you to the islands within the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park namely Gaya, Sulug, Manukan, Mamutik and Sapi. Being the adventurous souls that we are and in pursuit of quenching our thirst for action, we opted for the first boat out to Gaya Island for a fishing trip. No more than 20 minutes into the merciless waves of the ocean however, Ajep and our new friend Sarip were the only men standing. The rest of us, on the other hand, were in the restlessness of wanting to throw up from being seasick. We weren’t as steadfast as we thought, apparently. Well that and the fact that Syah took off his shirt -- never a sight to endure.

Being the kind men that they were, Ajep and Sarip dropped us off at Sapi Island with our snorkeling sets before jaunting off to the other side of the rock for more fishing action. Swimming through the blue waters of the area, wandering deeper into the ocean, I struggled to locate the spots that could live up to the expectation built by stories of the Sabahan underwater. Perhaps it was the weather. Perhaps the stories were about diving instead. Or perhaps other islands could offer more. Snorkeling there was a bit sub-par, for strangely, all I could see were eels. All belonging to Judd, Syah and Ikram, probably. Which were also sub-par.

Forget I ever wrote that.

I shall not write much about the nightlife in KK. Let’s just say that it’s only for the visitors to unearth.

Kinabalu dekat di Kundasang, banyak sayur bulih pilih pilih,

Apa guna pergi luar negeri naik Kinabalu, hati saya rindu.

I’ve never been that big on souvenirs, to be honest. The smiles of the locals were memorable enough for me to bring home and cherish forever. Plus, there are always pictures. The rest of us, on the other hand, would even bring home the entire Jesselton jetty, given half the chance. So you could imagine the commotion involved as they were bargaining around at the Filipino Market. Featuring a wide range of local handicrafts and pearl jewelries, I reckon the place could occupy you ladies out there a few good hours (or days, if you’re there with Judd).

The sellers were quite amused, at the very least. Witnessing the guys push themselves to the limit in trying to sound like a local was entertainment like no other. As in KK, it’s hard for you to sound like a local unless you’re a local. So adding ‘bah’ or ‘suda’ after every sentence may not necessarily work. Alas, they had to resort to Syah to haggle around. Still to no effect, as they’d usually call him up after agreeing on a price, only to tell the seller that he’s from Kuala Penyu.

Sumandak sumandak pun ramai menunggu, menari-nari lenggang Sumayau,
Sekali melihat melepak kulitnya, saya jatuh cinta.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Kuala Penyu, though I’ve never been there. Located about two hours south of KK, via Papar and Beaufort, Kuala Penyu is famous for its beaches and proximity to Tiga Island, where they shot the first season of Survivor. Syah has been talking about his beloved hometown for as long as we’ve known him. So going there, I for one was rather intrigued in knowing more about this township.

Laidback, and void of traffic, I could say that we fell in love with the place quite instantly. It’s just far… away… you know. Away from the nonsense that we’re constantly occupied and bugged with in life, in the city. Away from the noise that we’re used to have wrenched into our ears. Away from the price that we’ve been paying for industrialization. In Kuala Penyu, life, is much simpler. The way it should be.

Our arrival was greeted by the warmth of Syah’s family at the home of Cikgu Ali Hassan, his father. While we wasted no time before prowling around the household to snap pictures of younger Syah -- or Awang, as he is known at home -- Ajep had the opportunity to catch up with the family, who knows him very well. Quite appropriately and accurately, we're better off known by Syah's mother as the chubby one, the polite one, the dark one and the one without a sense of humor. Who is which is all for your guessing.

We were then brought to the Kuala Penyu jetty, known to be the longest in Asia. Stretching at about 1km, I was initially baffled in figuring out its actual function. There weren’t any elevation leading to the bridge and there were no boats in sight. After further explanation from Apik, Syah’s younger brother, who knows the place 150 times better than he does, the jetty is actually currently used for fishing. Deep water probably, judging by shore fishing standards. The view was marvelous and within sight, was the infamous Tiga Island.

At home, dinner was ready. Syah’s family was all too gracious in preparing us with a huge, seafood feast and the long-awaited Ambuyat to top it all off. Ambuyat is a traditional delicacy made out of sago. We managed to stop by a market in Beaufort on the way to grab a bag on the way earlier. It’s basically a sticky matter to be rolled with a chopstick before you dip it in the gravy of your choice. Alternatively, and I’m not sure if the locals do this, I could see the potential of the same dish to be turned into desert should you dip it in condensed milk or shredded coconut. Ecstatic.

Our utmost heartfelt gratitude for Syah’s family for the amazingly great time.

Saya sayang sayang Kinabalu, Kaamatan pesta bulan lima, 

Sayang sayang kita pergi tamu jalan Tamparuli, hati saya rindu.

The last destination before heading home was Kundasang, near the valleys of Mt. Kinabalu. And joining our journey was our good Sabahan friend, Jasper. The trip up to the village took no more than two hours and along the way was Tamparuli, the hometown of one of the country’s most adored songstress and my true love, Marsha. Few have claimed otherwise, unsurprisingly.

We stayed at the Kinabalu Heritage Resort, securing a chalet for the six of us. Given that our arrival was already quite late in the evening and it was raining, though, there was nothing to be seen.

The next morning, however, I was awoken by the sound of a ravenous grunt coming from the other side of the hall. As our chalet was located quite close to the heart of the jungle, the thought of a Sumatran Rhinoceros dropping by did cross my mind. Maybe I didn’t have to venture deep into the jungle after all to get a glimpse of the near-extinct creature.

Upon further investigation, though, I was devastated to find out that the sound was actually coming from the nostrils of the guys who were still sleeping like a row of logs. And there I was, enjoying the majestic view of the great Mt. Kinabalu with the sound of my snoring friends filling up the air.

What have I done wrong to deserve all these?

Sayang sayang kita pergi tamu jalan Tamparuli, hati saya rindu.

As any other memorable vacations would lead to, leaving KK couldn’t be any more difficult. Six days flew by too soon and possibly only another visit could do for us to spend more time discovering all that KK has got to offer.

We saw new places. We ate new food. We did new stuff and most importantly, we made new friends. Jasper, I guess we’ll all be feasting out whenever you’re in town. Ada, Joy, Aimi, Raihan, you guys have been remarkably wonderful hosts and only a turn for us to take you around would suffice in repaying your awesomeness. Rol, I don’t know if you’ll ever read this but, let it be known that you are much cooler than your cousin Awang; if that’s complimentary enough by any measure.

We left for KL with the heaviest of hearts and the bulk of us couldn’t stop looping Sayang Kinabalu on the stereo. I will always have a hard time figuring out where to begin in talking about KK. There are simply too many things to talk about. From the trenches of the ocean, to the heights of the mountains, to the depths of the jungles, KK has got it all. I suppose it’s the serenity of its nature and the opulence of its culture that bring out the warmth and kindness of its people. The warmth and kindness that portray, embody and represent everything about Sabah.

There’s simply no reason to not go there.

Unless you’re going with this guy.

Lyrics: Kimin Mudin - Sayang Kinabalu

Photography by Azalia Suhaimi

  • Asrif, b. 1983
  • Subang Jaya, Malaysia
  • asrifomar[@]gmail[.]com
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