Ex-Malaysia boss B. Satianathan chases Asian glory at Felda United
Former Malaysia national boss B. Satianathan has finally returned to football management with Felda United, almost two years after suffering the most humiliating experience of a professional coaching career stretching more than two decades.
After a training session with ATM FA in April 2015, Satianathan was effectively sacked in front of his own players by the club's deputy president, who was dissatisfied with their slow start to their Malaysia Super League season.
Officially, he was being "rested," but the man who had led the armed forces' team to the Premier League title just over two years earlier would never work with the side again.
"That was the toughest, worst experience that I've ever I had," Satianathan told ESPN FC. "But it's good to back. When you're a coach for 21 years, and you're not on the field again on a day-to-day basis, you really miss it."
Last month, the 58-year-old took over at Felda United, who are playing in the 2017 AFC Cup, courtesy of their runner up finish in the 2016 MSL behind Johor Darul Ta'zim.
But after a mass clear-out of players and two changes of coach since the end of last season, Felda found themselves flirting with the relegation zone in 2017. Since Satia's arrival, the Fighters have embarked on a four-game undefeated streak in all competitions.
On Tuesday night, despite missing four first-team regulars due to injury, they were just seconds away from their first-ever win in the AFC Cup after Zah Rah Krangar's first-half goal against Ha Noi FC at Shah Alam Stadium. But Do Hung Dung struck in added time to give the Vietnamese side a 1-1 draw on a rain-soaked pitch.
"When Felda approached me to coach them, they were one of two offers on the same day that I received from Super League teams," he said. "But I want to take a step better than before so coaching in the AFC Cup was something that attracted me to them."
Felda will face an uphill task to qualify for the knockout stages of the AFC Cup as they sit bottom of Group G, with a single point from two matches, behind Philippines' Ceres-Negros, Singapore's Tampines Rovers, and Ha Noi.
In the league, they also have plenty of work to do, and Satianathan was quick to dampen lofty expectations.
Last season, Felda pushed eventual champions JDT for much of the season. But their poor start to the 2017 campaign sees them in eighth spot, already 10 points behind leaders Kedah after eight games.
"I think I could win the league with Felda if I am still around for next season, but this year there is just too big a gap to Kedah, JDT and Pahang, although top-three or top-four might still possible," he said.
"I'm just trying to get this team back on track. In June [mid-season transfer window], I want to bring in two new imports and maybe four or five local players. Then it might be possible to win this year's Malaysia Cup."
Satia lifted the 2010 Malaysia Cup as coach of Kelantan, and finished second in the 2010 MSL behind Selangor. But he was forced to leave the Kota Bahru-based club at the start of 2011 after his outspoken comments against the sport's national body earned him a six-month ban.
"Outspoken" is a good way to describe the snappily dressed Perak-born manager who is also the president of the Malaysian Football Coaches Association. Fluent in Malay, English and Malayalam, Satia is always forthcoming with an opinion, and unlike some of his peers, is skilled at earning the respect of most of the hard-to-handle import players.
His two-year stint as national coach brought mixed results, but he did lift Malaysia after their capitulation when co-hosting the 2007 AFC Asian Cup. In an ill-fated tournament, they lost three group games in Kuala Lumpur by a combined 12-1 scoreline under Norizan Bakar.
Given his chance after winning the 2007 Merdeka tournament as U23 boss, Satia oversaw a 0-0 draw in World Cup qualifying with Bahrain, and a respectable 2-0 defeat to a Luiz Felipe Scolari-managed Chelsea side. But after a group-stage exit in the 2008 AFF Suzuki Cup and a 5-0 defeat to United Arab Emirates in an Asian Cup qualifier, his contract was terminated in Feb. 2009.
Having made his club reputation as a coach who can build successful teams, Satia is confident of turning over a new page at Felda after his bitter experience at ATM where many players complained of unpaid wages. It also started an unfortunate Malaysian trend of "resting" coaches.
"I know I gave my best at ATM, and even shared my own pocket money to players to help them when their salaries weren't paid," he said.
"Felda, on the other hand, are professional, well-organised administration-wise, and have big ambitions to be a top team in country ... what more can I ask I ask for?"
He returned to coaching in the same week that 81-year-old Karl-Heinz Weigang stepped down as Perak coach, to be replaced by Mehmet Durakovic. Satia was only half joking when he said he intended following the footsteps of the German octogenarian by working in Malaysian football for another two decades at least.
Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. Formerly Asian editor of FourFourTwo, he was also a CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @JasonDasey.