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Dec 18, 2011

Moulding a new Malaysian generation

Malaysia is a country in which English football is king. Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal have all visited Southeast Asia on pre-season tours in recent years, with tens of thousands of Malaysian supporters flocking to see their Premier League heroes in the flesh. But while the country adores watching soccer played 9,000 miles away, the reputation of the national team leaves much to be desired. Malaysia's most famous soccer exports are not players or managers, but businessman; QPR owner Tony Fernandes and Cardiff City majority shareholder Vicent Tan ensure there is a Malaysian presence in the English game, but their patronage has done little to enhance the national side's standing.

However, things do appear to be changing. Last year's AFF Suzuki Cup title provided a watershed moment for football in Malaysia - a shock 4-2 aggregate victory over hosts Indonesia securing the biggest piece of regional silverware in their history. It was hailed as a new dawn and while elimination from the second round of World Cup qualifiers this July at the hands of neighbours Singapore was a bitter pill to swallow, the Under-23 side attracted more positive headlines by beating Pakistan and then Lebanon to progress to the final round of 2012 Olympic qualifying. The first three games have brought three defeats, but there have been no embarrassments and the Harimau Muda (Young Tigers) were ten minutes away from beating Bahrain in their last outing before a dramatic comeback prevented them from registering a first win.

Nurturing young Malaysian talent has been a chief goal of the country's football association for more than a decade; it was at the turn of the millennium that Malaysia's deep-seated love of English football manifested itself in the hiring of its fifth Englishman as national team coach: Allan Harris the man charged with developing a team of youngsters into a competitive unit.

Harris earned his stripes as Terry Venables' assistant, when it appeared the pair were destined to join the likes of Morecambe and Wise and the Two Ronnies as one of England's most famous double acts. Together at Crystal Palace, QPR, Barcelona and Tottenham, he stood as El Tel's right-hand man for more than a decade, winning silverware with each club along the way.

But having spent much of his professional life in the shadow of a revered contemporary - his brother Ron 'Chopper' Harris became a legend and all-time leading appearance maker for Chelsea during a 19-year career at Stamford Bridge - the lure of a solo managerial stint was impossible for Harris to resist and in 1988, he left Venables and Spurs for Espanyol. It was to prove an ill-fated move, with a change in president leading to him being ousted without even taking a training session.

His first real appointment was at Egyptian giants Al Ahly, who he led to two straight domestic titles and the 1993 African Cup Winners' Cup. After leaving Cairo in 1995 the work dried up but in 2000, six years after former partner in crime Venables was given the England job, an international coaching opportunity also came Harris' way when Malaysia came calling.

"An agent friend of mine rang and he said there was a job going in Malaysia," Harris recalls to ESPNsoccernet. "I had never been there before but my uncle was in the Ghurkhas and had served there. I told him I'd been offered a job and asked what he thought. He told me to go for it and promised I'd love it; he was absolutely right.

"I thought I could give it a try so I went to meet the Malaysian FA and they were very charming. When they showed me where I would be living, I couldn't believe it. It was fabulous. Settling in was made easier by the fact everyone spoke English and drove on the left-hand side of the road. The weather was lovely, too, everything was perfect. At the start I used to go in and ask what the weather forecast was like and was told 'Allan, you are a typical Englishman, it's going to be 100 degrees everyday'."

As a successful assistant himself, Harris was grateful to have a very capable coach at his disposal in Malaysia, citing the presence of Bhaskaran Sathianathan - who later worked with Arsenal's Malaysian Soccer Schools and managed the national team between 2007 and 2009 - as crucial to helping him acclimatise to Southeast Asia life.

"Having a good assistant is so important and Bhaskaran was great," Harris says. "He spoke perfect English but beyond the potential language barriers, it's more the culture you have to learn and getting help with that is key. I have worked in places where you need to speak a different language before and it can become difficult to communicate. However, I found the Malaysian players and coaches were just thirsting for knowledge all the time, they wanted to learn and we just gelled right from day one."

While Al Ahly was like a managerial pressure-cooker for Harris, the Malaysia post was more akin to a sauna at a luxury spa. Simply tasked with improving the football fortunes of a nation that had previously struggled to make it in to the top 100 of FIFA's world rankings, the former Barcelona assistant was told not to worry about results and encouraged to focus on broadening the horizons of Malaysia's young players.

"The team that I had was a young team. I used to go in with my assistant every Monday to have a board meeting with the Malaysian FA and they'd say 'these are the offers we've had, where do you want to play?' We went to Singapore, the Maldives, Australia, New Zealand - I could just select where I wanted to go and they financed it. They were young lads and I wanted to give them as much experience as possible, so I thought travelling around was the best thing for them.

"My goal was to try and improve them and I tried to focus on youth, bringing a lot of young boys in to give them the opportunity to gain some valuable experience. They got to travel and play against difficult and better quality opposition, my aim was to advance them all which I think we did. I spent a lot of time on coaching, trying to pass on ideas and felt I built a real bond with the players; after coming from big clubs like Barca, taking a national team was interesting."

Through Harris' four years in charge, there was little in terms of tangible achievements to celebrate for the Malay Tigers. The first stage of 2002 World Cup qualifying saw them drawn with a rampant Qatar side, who cruised through the group. A home draw - the Qatari's only dropped points - was an admirable result, though, and Malaysia finished the campaign unbeaten on their own soil. The campaign was perhaps most notable for Harris banning three players - Kamarulzaman Hassan, Azmin Azram Abdul Aziz and fan favourite for staying out late at a nightclub before one of the group games.

The home form in the World Cup qualifiers meant the 2002 Tiger Cup (now the AFF Suzuki Cup) was greeted with much optimism in Malaysia. The goals of young striker Indra Putra Mahayuddin - still a part of the national team-set-up - fired them through to the semi-finals as group winners, but Harris' side were knocked out by Indonesia and then defeated by Vietnam in the third-place play-off. The conclusion to the tournament was made worse by the fact that Thailand - who Malaysia had beaten comfortably 3-1 in the group stage - won the final on penalties.

Another tricky qualification group for the 2004 AFC Asian Cup saw Harris' side finish third behind Iraq and Bahrain; his youngsters struggling to assert themselves against a better quality of opposition. By the time Harris' reign came to an end in 2004, there was criticism of him in the Malaysian press for what they perceived as a propensity to pick players based on their loyalty to him rather than their form. But having become accustomed to the media glare, particularly during his time at Barcelona, the Englishman was wholly unfazed by what was written about him.

"I couldn't see how the press could have had big expectations because if I asked you if Malaysia was a big footballing nation you'd obviously say no. I didn't really have that many problems with the press - I've dealt with them all over the world and it was no different. We had some good results and all I hoped for was that the guys felt like they were getting better."

When Harris left his position, there were murmurings that it was because he was about to be downgraded to coach of the Under-23 team. But the former Barca and Spurs assistant claims that was not the case, maintaining that his tenure had simply run its course.

"I decided to leave," Harris insists. "I'd done five years out there and the decisive factor was that I wanted to spend more time with my grandchildren in England and see them growing up. Once a year was not enough and after nearly five years there I thought 'I've given it a good go' and so I returned.

"Some people suggested I was going to be demoted and that's why I left - but that just wasn't the case. I was always on the same wavelength as the Malaysian FA. I told them well in advance that I would be leaving at the end of my contract and not signing another one. I always believed that it was better to tell the truth. They understood completely. I like to think I made a positive impact on Malaysian football and I still speak to people there. I think they would still have me back if I wanted to go."

Since leaving the post in 2004, Harris has not returned to work and is simply "enjoying retirement", his silverware-laden spell at Al Ahly preventing him from being grouped with the likes of Carlos Queiroz, Brian Kidd and Sammy Lee - excellent assistants who failed to make the grade as managers.

For the Malaysian national team, it's been a rocky road in the intervening years. In 2006, the Malay Tigers were left humiliated when they took on a team of amateurs put together on reality TV show MyTeam and only managed a one-goal victory, but the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup triumph indicates that the country is now back on the right track. There have even been suggestions that QPR owner Tony Fernandes would be keen to hand prolific Pelita Jaya FC striker Safee Sali an opportunity to be the first Malaysian player in the Premier League. Harris, though, believes those 9,335 people who liked the Facebook page 'Safee Sali to play for QPR' may be waiting a long while yet.

"I never really saw any players who I thought could make a name for themselves in England if I'm being honest. I think most Malaysian players would struggle with the physicality of the Premier League and I don't think there will be any good enough to make the grade over here in the immediate future."

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