By Tony Mariadass
The stakes are high for Singapore’s V. Sundramoorthy, who is tipped to take charge of Negri Sembilan in the Premier League next season.
The 47-year-old is no stranger to the Malaysian league, having first played for Singapore and then for Kedah (89-90), Pahang (91-92) and Kelantan (94).
So, he will be familiar with the demands and pressures of being a player in the M-League, but as a coach? He must know he will be in the hot seat.
Still, what is puzzling is why Sundramoorthy is moving to Negri Sembilan. The team finished at the bottom of the Super League this season with just one win and seven draws out of 22 matches.
The Deer, as the team are popularly known, were not a weak side this season. Indeed, they had eight new faces, including two imports – Argentinian striker Emanuel De Porras and Cameroon defender William Paul Modibo.
But Portuguese coach Divaldo Alves failed to raise their game and was replaced by assistant Ridzuan Abu Shah midway through the season.
Surprisingly, Negri Sembilan, which qualified for the ongoing Malaysia Cup through a play-off with Sabah in which they won 4-0, are riding high in the competition with two wins, a loss and a draw in four out of six group matches. They won and drew against defending champion Kelantan, beat Terengganu and narrowly lost to Pahang (5-3).
Over the years, Negri Sembilan’s performance has been anything but consistent. A fair number of their coaches have also been replaced. In fact, over the last 20 years, they have had nine coaches, including M. Karathu (94-98), Irfan Bakti Abdu Salim (98-99), Mohd Zaki Sheikh Ahmad (2000-02), K. Devan (03-06), Hatem Souissi (06-07), Wan Jamak Wan Hassan (07-11) and Mohd Azraai Khor Abdullah (11-12).
Now for a bit of history. Negri Sembilan tasted their first Malaysia Cup victory in 1948, ending a 61-year drought, and triumphed again in 2001. They won the Premier League in 1991, the Super League in 2006, the Charity Shield in 2012 and the FA Cup in 2003 and 2013.
Negri Sembilan also finished runners-up in the FA Cup in 1995; the Malaysia Cup in 2000, 2006 and 2010; the Charity Shield in 2004 and 2010, the Premier League in 2005 and the Super League in 2008.
So, the Deer have not exactly been deprived of glory all these years. Sundramoorthy will not have to create any “firsts” for the team.
It is learnt that he has agreed to a two-year contract and double-your-money deal to head the team next season. Though no figure has been disclosed, it could be anything from RM40,000 to RM50,000 a month.
The question is, can Sundramoorthy take the heat of the job?
Besides having to deliver the goods – at least a title in the new season-, he has to take the team back to top level – Super League – and qualify for the Malaysia Cup competition.
This is where all the hidden pressure will come into play: Will he have a free hand in the selection of players? Will he be able to go about his job without any interference from top officials of the state football association? And his biggest battle – can he trust his players?
Over the years, the Deer have been linked to match-fixing or suspected of it. Even the state’s youth team – the President Cup squad – recently faced such accusations. In fact, the coach was charged and jailed, and, along with several of the players, has been banned for life. A prominent bookie from Singapore was also found to be living in the state capital Seremban.
Negri Sembilan FA president Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan, who is also the chief minister of the state, himself has come out to say that he suspects his team of match-fixing this season.
The Negri Sembilan fans will be another major headache for Sundramoorthy for they are very demanding and vocal about it.
No, it is not going to be a bed of roses for Sundramoorthy in Negri Sembilan. All indications are there are more thorns than roses awaiting him.
What seem to be in his favour are the lucrative deal, of course, and the not very long distance between Singapore and Seremban – about three and a half hours by road. He could make regular trips back home.
Otherwise, it is going to be a pressure cooker atmosphere for Sundramoorthy from day one. He will not know which side has its knives drawn out for him.
At the height of his career as a footballer, Sundramoorthy was known as the ‘The Dazzler’ and ‘King Cobra’, but can he waltz his way around the Deer or strike before he is struck? Only time will tell.
Tony Mariadass is a Malaysian sports journalist