BLOG: Welcome back, coach Raddy
Our report DAVID LEE is glad to see former Singapore trainer Radojko Avramovic back in town for the Suzuki Cup, even if he is on the enemy’s side this time.
"No, that’s not what I said. That’s what you want me to say.
"Be careful of what you write in the papers. Otherwise I will not speak to you again."
Ah, never thought I would say this, but I miss the old man — mind games, embargo threats, and that unmistakable Serbian accent.
It has been almost two years since Radojko Avramovic signed off a decade of service by winning Singapore’s fourth Asean title — his third with the Lions.
As fate would have it, his Myanmar side have made it through the Suzuki Cup qualifiers to join Group B, which will be played in Singapore, his old stomping ground.
"Yes David, what you want?" is how the old man always greeted me with such warmth and affection (yeah right) whenever I called him.
But honestly, I wouldn’t blame him for wanting to wring my neck.
My first interview with Raddy started off on a benign enough note.
It was shortly after I joined The New Paper as an intern in 2008, when Singapore held a Harry Kewell-led Australia 0-0 (yes, those were the days). Since then, 10 per cent of my 3,000 stories featured the wily coach.
But when results started to go downhill, I had the unenviable task of going up to the grumpy-looking old man to talk about really unpleasant stuff.
In 2010, I had to ask him what he thought about an anonymous poison-pen letter that criticised his training methods and schedule during a training camp in Serbia. It also accused him of making the players "just hitting long balls and packing the defence".
What followed was what some Raddy-loyalists would call a two-year "witchhunt".
Following a string of disappointing results, beginning with his first, and only, group-stage elimination from the Suzuki Cup in Dec 2010, I kept asking whether he would step down as Singapore coach.
I was also there in 2011 when he was sent off for confronting Lebanese referee Andre El Haddad, who had robbed Singapore of a historic World Cup qualifier win in China by awarding two spot-kicks to the hosts and dismissing a cast-iron penalty appeal by the Lions.
Raddy was fined and banned for four matches by Fifa for the incident, and confided in me his regret.
In the months that followed, each time there was a poor result, he gamely fielded my questions about his future in his signature cryptic way even though it appeared I had regularly undermined his position with stories about potential successors.
But it was clear he wanted to end his tenure on his own terms, on a high.
And when he sensed that an unprecedented fourth Asean title was in sight, he stopped at nothing to make sure his team delivered.
Including using me as a target board.
I had reported, factually, a war of words between Raddy and Philippines coach Michael Weiss before the first leg of the 2012 Suzuki Cup semi-finals in Manila. Raddy demanded respect after Weiss missed the pre-match press conference, and insisted his team need not kowtow to anyone.
At a crowded press conference at Jalan Besar for the return leg, Raddy fingered me as the culprit who tried to stir s***.
Good thing I had a good sense of humour and saw through his ploy of deflecting attention from his team before a tense encounter.
In the end, one Khairul Amri goal sent Singapore through to the finals, which the Lions subsequently won after beating Thailand 3-2 on aggregate.
After the triumph in Bangkok, we shared a laugh as I offered him the champagne (his preferred diet remains cigarettes and coffee) I had presumptuously bought at the duty-free store two days before the second leg.
And then it struck me.
It’s over between me and him.
And it seemed like a little part of me died because I did grow to be quite fond of the old man who would stay up in the wee hours to meticulously pore over videos to plot a way for the Lions to beat superior sides.
With his unrivalled record, he neither had to give pesky reporters like me the time of day, nor his invaluable insights to both the Lions and their opponents.
Nor his mobile number, which the current national coach has quite understandably kept unknown to the media.
But Raddy did.
And he did a lot more for Singapore football, which perhaps hasn’t been adequately capitalised on.
Which is why I’m happy to see him in town again.
But I understand if Singaporeans are not half as pleased as me because he could be the one to kill our hopes on Wednesday.
Regardless, I hope Raddy gets a hero’s welcome he deserves for spending 10 years of his life here and giving us some truly unforgettable triumphs.