Kelantan Preview: Red Warriors seek stability, on and off the pitch
While the Red Warriors finished fourth last season (albeit 29 points behind champions Johor Darul Ta'zim) most – in fact virtually all – headlines centred around off-field shenanigans.
There were plenty to choose from. The choice of cosmetic company Vida Beauty as a major sponsor went from being cute, to curious, to silly, to downright scary.
While red on the pitch is a positive move, nobody wants to see more red when it comes to the accounts
The company came in just before the start of the campaign with the promise of a much-needed cash injection of between RM16-20 million.
In return, the stadium was painted pink, the shirts became pink and the Red Warriors became pink.
Can fans expect more pink in 2017?
“Of course [we are happy] to return to red,” Kelantan General Secretary Datuk Ismail Md Noor told FourFourTwo after the welcome news that the team will be donning red shirts in Kota Bharu.
While red on the pitch is a positive move, nobody wants to see more red when it comes to the accounts, as was the case in 2016 when the promised funds failed to materialise and debts mounted.
Players were not getting paid while by December there was even talk there wouldn’t be a Kelantan in the 2017 Malaysia Super League at all.
The recruitment of two new sponsors in RedONE, a telecommunications company, and agricultural firm Al Hamra Group – whose president Tan Sri Annuar Musa resigned as Kelantan chief last November amid the growing financial problems – ensures that the 2011 and 2012 champions are back.
That is now all in the past, according to the general secretary.
Our president has solved the financial crisis. Now we are all looking ahead to the new season. I hope we will be OK
“Our president has solved the financial crisis,” he said. “Now we are all looking ahead to the new season. For this season, I hope we will be OK.”
As you would expect given the circumstances, there have been plenty of changes ahead of the new season.
Coach Velizar Popov has been replaced by Zahasmi Ismail, Wan Zack Haikal has gone to Felda and star midfielder Brendan Gan has been released, with foreign players Jonathan McKain, Blaze Ilijoski – their top scorer from 2016 – and Wander Luiz all heading away from northeast Malaysia.
Those coming the other way include Abdul Aziz Ismail from Malacca and Hasmizan Kamarodin from Terengganu.
Fans will be waiting to see what Nigerian striker Okiki Afolabi is made of. The forward is a former under-23 international and scored 13 goals in the Nigerian Premier League in the 2015-16 season before heading to Argentine club Talleres de Cordoba in the summer of 2016.
After impressing in the reserves, he got a chance for the first team before being picked up by Kelantan. It looks to be one of those signings that will either be inspired or invisible.
While Ismail insists that he is happy with the squad, there could be new signings before the big kick-off.
And given the fact not many teams have been splashing the cash in the pre-season, there is some optimism.
“Last season, we finished in fourth place in the league. That's our benchmark, but we will try to get to the higher places,” said Ismail.
Just being there may be enough, for a while at least.
For fans, 2017 is about saying goodbye to pink and hello to red again – on the pitch at least.
Photos: Kelantan FA