By Suresh Nair
They say, great football men think alike. And the extraordinary success story of Johor Darul Ta’zim FC, also simply known as JDT, boils down to the incredible visionary leadership of a football-fanatic prince, who found a right partner.
The southern-most Malaysian state-club has grown so quickly over the past few years with a prince-partner combination after the estute decision was made to bring back former Johor-state legend Alistair Edwards in the role of JDT Sporting Director.
This, in a nutshell, ranks as the beginning of a fairy-tale football-cherished bondship between HRH Tunku Ismail Ibni Sultan Ibrahim, the 32-year-old football-visionary Crown Prince of Johor, and Edwards.
Both, rather uniquely, share a lot of “Australianship” together.
Tunku Ismail (or Tunku Mahkota Johor, TMJ, as he is known across the Causeway) had his early education at the Australian International School in Singapore and furthered his studies at Hale School, Perth, Australia until late 2002.
Edwards, who played for Johor in 1991 when they won the rare “double”, was a ‘Socceroo’ between 1991-1997, where he scored three goals in 19 ‘A’ internationals, and also represented Australia at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Chile, South America in 1987.
Today, these two “bola” buffs are both holding hands like good ‘ole buddies, on an exemplary dream-come-true mission to bring world-class football infrastructure to the southern state of Johor, with exemplary state-of-the-art facilities that can match the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester City or Bayern Munich.
This is the third and final part feature to highlight the “Malaysia Boleh” pinnacle point of inspiration, where the Johor club has almost single-handedly transformed, football-wise, with the proverbial magical wand,by the starry-eyed leadership of TMJ, with a little help of a former club legend.
It’s like a sentimental heart-endearing fairy-tale. You may say, this partnership may well have been made in heaven!
Tunku Ismail was only seven years when he hero-worshipped Edwards in 1991, when the former Australian striker, then 23 years, played for Johor in the Malaysia Cup. Now 25 years later, a dream-like bondship has blossomed in the Australian football guru as the newly-minted JDT Sporting Director.
“When we won the ‘double’in ‘91, Tunku Ismail was a fanatical flag-waving seven year old and he told me he had my photo on the bedroom wall,” recalls Alistair, who helped Johor to a famous League and Malaysia Cup “double” back in 1991. He then continued his playing career in Singapore, England, Australia and elsewhere in Malaysia before moving into coaching at various levels back in his homeland.
“Mind you, this is royalty saying this to me. Those kinds of thing are pretty surreal. And now I return to the same state and believe me, it feels like you’re coming home to a certain extent.”
You write the script now: Say, the “white kampong” boy returns to, hopefully, help turn Johor to a state with world-class “bola” facilities to groom the younger Johorean generations. Say, it’s a dream-come-true for 48-year-old Edwards, who was born in Whyalla, South Australia to Scottish parents.
The chemistry between the Prince and Edwards can be one from the leaf of a highly imaginative fairy-tale book as both agreed that a right mixture of an Asian, South American and European winning formula was imperative.
And they went for a combination of what were best at such world renowned clubs such as Real Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich and Manchester City and married it with what the Japanese and South Koreans offered from the Oriental-end of Asia.
Some may say it’s like building castles in the air. Something like a pipe-dream. But this is a fantastical longer-term vision, between prince-partner, to open the mindsets of the younger generation to make them believe that they can match the best in the world, if they put their hearts and souls to the football-fantasy with the proverbial blood, sweat and tears.
“I share Tunku’s vision that JDT must aspire to be the Asean version of Real Madrid or Bayern Munich as the club that literally embodies football development,” says Edwards, who in August 2009 was appointed to the position of Australia’s Assistant Technical Director, working alongside Dutchman Han Berger. “Any world-class football club has to be run as a professional football club, full of integrity and professionalism.”
Three main goals topped the duo’s agenda: The target of developing youth, (a) professional attitude in the sport and to, slowly but surely, win titles.
Edwards said he was pleased that after his playing career and returning to Australia for further coaching stints, Tunku Ismail closely followed his exploits.
“When I came back with Perth Glory, I spoke to His Royal Highness and he told me he’d been following my career in Australia when I was with the FFA (Football Federation of Australia) for a number of years – coaching, administration and every aspect of football,” he says. “I was thrilled. He also knew about my political career in Western Australia. So he’d been following what I had been up to!”
Whilst playing for Perth Glory, from 1998 to 2004, the same period that the Prince was schooling in Perth, Edwards graduated with an MBA (Masters in Business Administration) from Edith Cowan University and also entered politics when he was elected onto the Cockburn City Council from 2002 to 2006.
And since retiring as a player, he also took on a number of roles in sport development. He worked as a Sport Consultant at the Western Australian State Government Department of Sport and Recreation from 2002 to 2005 and was also thickly involved in the restructure and development of football in Australia.
He also exposed the rarely-seen gift of the gab and even commentated A-League games, covered by Perth radio station 90.5FM. He was also a football pundit in Singapore for the FIFA World Cup 2014 with SingTel Mio TV.
He recalls: “I was back in Malaysia, in a new role as technical director at (third-tier club) Real Mulia and TMJ contacted me again and wanted to have a meeting. He explained the project and what he was doing, which I knew about anyway, because everyone knows what’s happening with JDT.
“He asked if I’d like to come along as the JDT sporting director and work alongside him on all football-related matters with the club. It took me about a split second to say yes!”
Tunku Ismail created JDT II, which is similar to a lot of the models they use in Europe such as Barcelona, Bayern Munich, for example. And since then the Prince has showed his keen interest in youth-development, to establish football development programs all the way from Under-6s through to the first team.
Edwards says: “JDT II was an important starter to develop the younger players coming through. We’ve got some wonderful talent in that squad and the hope is for them to one day progress to the first team.
“Then you’ve got the academy underneath that. We had 67 players in 2016 at Under-12s and Under-15s. This year, we have expanded to 110 with some restructuring and the establishment of our Under-17 programmes. They stay on site at apartments, we feed them, we look after them, they have English lessons. It’s a proper academy, teaching them to be good people, teaching them nutrition, sports psychology, all of that. That’s part of the business to nurture them to be future thoroughbred football professionals.”
Starting a regional programme in 10 districts was another grassroots priority and academy programmes have been fostered to boost heartland involvement.
“Our target is to have the best football academy in Asean by 2020,” says Edwards. “By churning our home-grown players with the right values of a football culture, we can groom more Asian-class Malaysian players for the national team.”
Winning the 2015 AFC (Asian Football Confederation) Cup in 2015 was the euphoric height for Johor and Malaysian football – tantamount to an Asean club grabbing the World Cup!
Edwards recalls: “Johor football’s No 1 benefactor, TMJ, deserves much of the credit for JDT’s sudden rise the last three years. He’s helped put Malaysian football on the map by making JDT so professional in everything that they do and we’re seeing results on the pitch.
“Believe me, I can’t stop singing praises of him. He’s a God-send ‘change agent’ and for a lot of people, change is never easy, you can see this in the reaction from some to the success that’s come our way, but what he’s done in such a short period of time is truly amazing.”“He’s got a special aura about him and is an incredibly gifted leader”
Tears well in Edwards’ eyes as he looks back to how a seven-year-old prince in 1991 has blossomed to be an international-class football fan.
“I may have been one of his heroes then but he is the genuine royal hero of Malaysian football today because he’s helping everyone strive to become better,” says Edwards.
“This is not just a success for Johor football, but for the entire country. And these kind of successes makes it easier to push more things through for the good of Malaysian and South-east Asian football.”
Edwards has always been the epitome of a team-player and he says JDT’s string of good fortunes boils down right to the grassroots folks on the ground, like the coaches, administrators, office staff, groundsmen, drivers and security guards, who work tirelessly, behind the scenes at the club. Not forgetting, very big praises for the heartland fans, coming from an area of 19,210 sq km, coming family-styled with their children in tow, to enjoy the new football revolution.
“It’s often said that a champion person or club is created by things done when no one is watching and this is what I’m fortunate to see at first-hand at JDT from the club’s little-known folks, who must be saluted in some way or another,” says Edwards. “That’s the real beauty of football, where the pats on the back must flow from the top, right to the bottom to make everyone feel appreciated. This is the wonder of Johor, known by its Arabic honorific, Darul Ta’zim, or ‘Abode of Dignity’.”
Ever since the club came under Tunku Ismail’s control, they have won the 2014, 2015 and 2016 Super League titles, the 2015 AFC Cup, the 2016 FA Cup and two Charity Shields. Seven titles in just over three years is a remarkable achievement in any football record books.
Former award-winning Singapore coach Jita Singh, who won the Malaysia Cup in 1980, as well as two South-east Asian (SEA) Games silver medals (1983 and 1989), saluted JDT’s mammoth global-branded programme, which he believes will be more than a shot-in-the-arm for Johor and Malaysia football. And even to inspire Singaporeans to aim for the football skies.
“I was highly impressed with the way Alistair showed the state-of-the-art facilities and advocated his long-term development programmes. His prince-partner bondship with Tunku Ismail is unbelievable, almost God-send, to preach the wonderful qualities of football that can united any state or country,” said Jita, who adores German football and the Bayern Munich style of play.
“It should be duly noted that even Germany’s ascension to the pinnacle of the game a few years ago also coincided with the Bayern Munich’s revamped system,” he says.“Such visions into total football development mirror those of other football clubs noted for their unique and successful methodology for player development like Ajax and Barcelona.”
Jita, who also briefly coached Johor in the 1990s, saluted the close involvement of the Johor royal family in making Johor Darul Ta’zim FC (JDT) a role-model Asean-based professional club, not only in terms of good management but also world-class training equipment and facilities for players.
“Football is soaring to great heights, very big in Johor under the leadership of Tunku Ismail,” he says.
“There is so much pride and passion in the players, officials, fans and supporters. The new world-class facilities, especially the upcoming ‘football city’ in Iskandar Puteri, will certainly be a major source of pride to the people of Johor and Malaysia.”
And, in the final context, the imaginative Johor football success story boils down to the incredible fairy-tale prince-partner bondship between Tunku Ismail and Alistair Edwards in a remarkable “Australianship” way.
I left the Stadium Tan Sri Dato’ Haji Hassan Yunos Stadium on January 5 like a dreamy-eyed football journalist, knowing that in JDT there’s a very loud lesson to learn: To aim and aspire, to desire and dream, with fire in the belly, to show the world that in the southern state of Johor, Singapore’s next-door neighbour, there’s the right stuff in longer-term “bola” visionary.
This football passion, pursuit and push must inspire every young Malaysian and Singaporean that if you put your hearts and souls, you can achieve anything and everything, especially with powerful football vision management, stamped in Johor by an extraordinary prince-partner companionship.
- Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist, who together with former Singapore coach Jita Singh, was invited on January 5 by Alistair Edwards to view the world-class football revolution in Johor.