Monday, 31 October 2011

Coach Azraai inspires Negeri Sembilan to glory

It was a night to remember at the Shah Alam Stadium on Saturday as Negri Sembilan regained their Malaysia Cup title in dramatic fashion by scoring late goals in the last 10 minutes of the final to edge Terengganu 2-1.
Negri's victory is a great closure to the M-League season, which saw east coast teams - Kelantan and Terengganu - win the Super League and FA Cup respectively.

Just a few months ago, Negri were in the dumps, having finished eighth in the Super League, and the team, led by veterans Shukor Adan and Hairuddin Omar, were bracing for an early end to their season.

Coach Azraai Khor Abdullah even found it tough to name 18 players for league matches due to injuries. But the 59-year-old used the short break after the Super League to implement strategies and motivate his players.

It worked to his advantage as Negri bounced back in the Malaysia Cup. Negri's win, their third in the competition, also underlined Azraai as the best coach in Malaysian football.

Azraai may have led Kedah to double treble (Super League, FA Cup, Malaysia Cup) success in the 2006/07 and 2007/08 seasons but his achievement with Negri would be remembered as one of the greatest comeback stories in local football.

His ability to transform a bunch of unmotivated and injured players into a formidable unit in just seven months after his appointment is an exceptional achievement.

It was also a sweet personal victory for Azraai, after having being axed as the national youth coach last July following internal wrangling upon the national Under-21 team's return from their maiden Slovakia stint.

Azraai was then left with only paperwork at the FA of Malaysia (FAM) head office in Kelana Jaya before the national body released him from his contract with compensation in March.

"I feel privileged. You always want to win, but the way we have won is what I am most proud of. This is the way we want to play football," said Azraai after the victory ceremony at the Shah Alam Stadium on Saturday.

"It's a victory as a group and a very important one for me as a coach, but not the victory of my life. That will be in the future. I want to help Negri win more titles.

"This victory is not only a belated birthday gift for me but also a gift to the Negri FA for keeping fate in me during difficult times."

On Negri's dramatic victory in the final, he said the difference was that his team made fewer mistakes.

"I mentioned before the final, we would win the title in 90 minutes, and we did it in style. It was not luck... we pressed hard and forced Terengganu to make mistakes.

"Sharbinee's (Allawee) made goalkeeping errors and we took advantage of his mistakes but this is football. When I led Kedah to the 2004 final, my goalkeeper made a mistake which led to Perlis winning the title," said Azraai, who began his coaching career 20 years ago.

Azraai put the victory to tactical astuteness, surprising Terengganu by lining-up Shukor, a midfielder, in attack along with Hairuddin and attack orientated midfielders Kunanlan, Shahurain Abu Samah, Idris Karim and Abdul Halim Zainal.

The strategy crippled Terengganu's strikeforce as Manaf Mamat, Abdul Hadi Yahya, Ashaari Samsuddin and Joseph Kallang Tie could not create opportunities on a regular basis.

After Kunanlan's freak goal in the 81st minute cancelled out Ashaari Samsuddin's strike for Terengganu, Hairuddin's spectacular volley off a Shukor's cross four minutes from time earned Negri the title.

Azraai praised veterans Hairuddin and Shukor for their sterling show in the final.

"Hairuddin and Shukor used their experience to good use. Both veterans gave us the edge in the Malaysia Cup," said Azraai, adding that Hairuddin has not decided on whether to continue playing for Negri next season.

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