Zesh Rehman endorses Josep Gombau for Malaysia coach, eyes Asia return
As the painstaking search for Malaysia's next national coach goes on, former Fulham and Pahang defender Zesh Rehman says Australia under-23 boss Josep Gombau should be given the job to galvanise the squad for their 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualifying campaign.
Rehman is a big admirer of the Spanish-born Gombau, having played under him at Hong Kong's Kitchee SC over two seasons in 2012-13.
The 40-year-old former Barcelona youth coach was mentioned in glowing terms by the Crown Prince of Johor (TMJ) when he took over as Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) president in March.
"Josep is an absolute legend ... one of the best coaches and man managers I have worked with," Rehman told ESPN FC.
"He would galvanise the Malaysian national team and is by far the best candidate for the job.
"Josep would bring a very attractive style of play, which also gets results."
With their opening Asian Cup qualifier away to North Korea on June 8, Malaysia are without a head coach after Datuk Ong Kim Swee was demoted to the under-23 side following March's international friendly in the Philippines. Ex-Johor Darul Ta'zim boss Mario Gomez was poised to take the job before rejecting financial terms offered by FAM.
With ex-Portugal coach Paulo Bento ruled out, despite reports linking him to the job, FAM say they could announce their new man by the end of the week. But Gombau, the former Adelaide United manager who is contracted with the Olyroos until 2020, is not believed to be a candidate.
After a short stint with English third-tier side Gillingham, Rehman is eyeing a return to Asia. The 33-year-old signed with the League One club in February, and helped them avoid relegation on the last day of the season, playing 10 games and scoring a goal.
He's had approaches from Malaysia Super League teams, plus clubs in Bahrain and Iran. But he says it is unlikely that he will return to Pahang, who have been rejuvenated by the return of former national coach Dollah Salleh.
Rehman is still a fan favourite in Kuantan after three seasons with the ambitious East Coast club. With imports like Rehman, Dickson Nwakaeme (Nigeria), Matias Conti (Argentina) and Damion Stewart (Jamaica), Pahang established themselves as serious contenders to Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT), winning the Malaysia Cup in 2013 and 2014, and the FA Cup in 2014.
"As much as I love Pahang, I doubt that a return there is on the cards," Rehman admitted.
"However, I do miss the huge crowds and the wonderful atmosphere. Winning the 2014 Malaysia Cup, and scoring a penalty in the final against JDT was the standout moment.
"I have been bombarded by clubs in the region who have enquired about my availability. I must admit I am tempted by Bahrain and Iran, but will decide soon. I am tempted because my time in Asia had a huge positive effect on me."
An English-born Pakistani international, Rehman's career began as a youth player with Fulham. He was a first-team player at Craven Cottage for three seasons, appearing in 21 games in the Premier League between 2003 and 2006. His other English clubs include Queens Park Rangers, Bradford City and the recently promoted Brighton and Hove Albion.
His first foray into Asia came in 2011 at Thailand's Muang Thong United where he was managed by Liverpool legend Robbie Fowler, before successful stints in Hong Kong and Malaysia.
At Pahang, he would often be used as a screening midfielder, but returned to his more familiar centre-back role at Gillingham, under Adrian Pennock.
"I'm close to 400 career games, which has been achieved by taking care of my body every day in order to prolong my career," he said. "Even though I am 33, I feel 27. I have another three or four years left in these legs."
With an eye on his post-playing career, Rehman has earned his UEFA B and A coaching badges, and will begin his Pro Licence later this month. And you can be sure that the influence of his former Kitchee manager will mould his philosophy. That's why he reckons Malaysia should go all out to bring Gombau's Barcelona-flavoured style to Southeast Asia.
"I believe that hiring a foreign coach would be the best solution for Malaysia ... someone who can improve the team, but also train the locals coaches, and have some say on grassroots' football, in terms of implementing a long-term strategy," he said.
"Josep can provide all that. They should just give him the job."
Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. An ex-World Cup & EPL host, he has also been a CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @JasonDasey.