Fandi: LionsXII have no stars, but we're a team
Standing pitchside at the Jalan Besar Stadium yesterday, LionsXII coach Fandi Ahmad intermittently wore furrowed brows.
The training session was over, but his conversation with journalists was frequently interrupted as he turned back time and again to snap at his players.
Beneath it all, though, behind the bark, was a hint of a smile.
He was probably quietly pleased, because Fandi just could not get his players off the pitch.
In front of the King George's Stand, Faris Ramli was practising penalty kicks.
Along the sidelines, a shirtless Isa Halim was grimly focused on a press-up and crunches regime, and even Raihan Rahman, continuing his rehabilitation after knee surgery, was still passing the ball with teammates.
Targeting a top-three finish, Fandi has called for commitment, desire and unity from his charges and, ahead of their opening Malaysian Super League (MSL) encounter against PDRM tomorrow at the Jalan Besar Stadium, there was evidence of a team spirit among the LionsXII.
"We don't have stars in the team, no individuals, and I've told the boys that we've got to work hard - as a team," said Fandi. "We are raring to go and I'm confident that we can surprise people this year.
"And I can see that confidence in the boys, too. They are starting to take responsibility and behave like professionals, and that is a key difference from last year."
The LionsXII entered the last campaign as MSL champions, but ended it eighth out of 12 teams.
"Last year, we learnt some tough lessons. Maybe we thought we were stars after winning the league, and our heads got big," said midfield hardman Isa, the team captain.
"I did feel that something was amiss in the dressing room last year, but this time, it's different, there's a lot of positivity," he added, pointing to the pre-season trip to the Maldives.
Isa, 28, related how the team rallied around new boy Wahyudi Wahid after he got kicked in the head by an opponent, and how unity and dedication shone through on the trip.
"We're together as one family and that is an important platform for any team to have," said the elder statesman of the LionsXII.
On that trip to the Maldives two weeks ago, Fandi saw the potential for his charges to surprise.
He singled out midfielders Firdaus Kasman, Nazrul Nazari and Gabriel Quak as standout performers there, along with Madhu Mohana, who Fandi described as a "leader" on the trip.
Juggling National Service commitments over the last two years, Madhu was in and out of the side, but his obligations are over.
Now a fully-fledged professional, he is looking to make his mark, especially in the wake of the departure of defensive lynchpin, Safuwan Baharudin, who is on loan to Melbourne City.
"I've got no excuses any more, I have to step up and perform and you can see that same desire in everyone here," said Madhu, 23.
"Everyone is fighting for a spot in the first 11 and that competition is good for the team - that desire is a key factor for any team."
Even gout-stricken Afiq Yunos laced up his boots yesterday, pushing hard for a starting spot alongside Madhu in central defence.
A roar was heard immediately after Afiq scored with a header in a two-sided training game yesterday, and it did not come from the 24-year-old.
It came from forward Khairul Nizam and Quak, clearly pleased for their convalescing teammate, who they embraced in the middle of the penalty box.
Armed with spirit, Fandi's men are gearing up for a fast start in this season's MSL campaign.
We lost supporters last year, and I think this time, even the Malaysian teams are doubting our quality — but I think we can surprise and give them a run for their money.
— LionsXII skipper Isa Halim
LIONSXII v PDRM FA
(Tomorrow, 7.30pm, StarHub TV Ch 112/205 & 76.25MHz)
BY THE NUMBERS
The goal tally of PDRM striker Ali Ashfaq last season. The Maldivian was voted the MSL’s Foreign Player of the Year after helping the team win promotion from the Malaysian Premier League.