The rise of Malaysian Premier League

Felda United and Kedah’s Malaysia Cup exploits have highlighted the progress of the M-League’s second tier, writes Darren Goon.

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Six years after their last Malaysia Cup triumph, Kedah were one match away from the 2014 final, after leading 3-1 in the first leg of their semi-finals with Pahang. However, in the end, it was not meant to be as they were humbled 5-0 in the return leg by the defending champions.

It was an expected result, one might say, but the fact remains that despite being a Malaysian Premier League (MPL) side, they swept aside four Malaysia Super League (MSL) teams and took this year’s tournament by storm. Interestingly, despite their soaring progress in the competition, The Red Eagles (a new nickname bestowed on them this season to replace the rather less aggressive ‘The Canaries’) had largely flown under the radar this season.

Farhan Roslan, Kedah's new teen sensation, celebrates with Billy Mehmet

In contrast, their fellow Malaysia Cup semi-finalists (and fellow MPL team) Felda United were already a household name when the cup kicked off, by virtue of their run to the FA Cup final and second place finish in the league. But Kedah? Besides their historic “double treble” achievement in 2007 and 2008, the average Malaysian football fan would probably struggle to mention anything about them in the ensuing years, with the exception of Baddrol Bakhtiar and Khyril Muhymeen, who were well known due to their exploits with the national team.

The northern side were relegated to the Premier League in 2012, and it’s been a case of “out of sight, out of mind” since then. Barring their participation in last season’s Malaysia Cup (where they finished bottom of their group) and an exciting 4-5 penalty shootout defeat to Johor Darul Takzim (JDT) in the FA Cup, Kedah had largely been out of the public eye, an unfortunate, but understandable, occurrence in Malaysia.

In the shadows

Never mind that “Premier” (meaning “foremost” or “leading”) is behind “Super” (“excellent”, “outstanding”) in the M-League hierarchy (we’ll leave the league-name-ranking to linguists), but it seems that once teams are relegated from the top tier, they drop into a black hole, only to appear under exceptional circumstances, or in this case, a great cup run.

Billy Mehmet takes on Sarawak's defence in the Malaysia Cup

Everything is reduced – media coverage, match-day crowds (Felda and Negeri Sembilan experienced a reduction in average attendance after being relegated from the Super League last season), squad quality and so on. Smaller teams plug on, hoping to make it back into the top positions and at least a Malaysia Cup group stage play-off spot, while the bigger sides, usually state football associations, utilise their name and history as best they can to make it back into the Super League before their allure dries out. State teams like Penang and Malacca even dropped into the third tier, the FAM League, where three-digit attendance figures are rare and the coverage tends to be limited to the local section of the newspaper or the clubs’ Facebook pages.

Indeed, most Malaysians don’t pay much attention to the MPL. Match highlights? Virtually non-existent. Match reports? You would need to do some digging. Only a handful of MPL matches are broadcasted on TV and teams are barred from streaming official league games online, so the most common way for people to watch a game is to go down to the stadium and catch them in person. With most league games taking place on Friday evenings, that was a doable notion – unless you live in a different state.

It is expected for a second division to play second fiddle to its dashing, more successful bigger brother. That is the reason why divisions exist, after all. Motivation. Incentive. Stimulus. Everyone wants to make it to the top and get a slice of that Super League pie, and woe befalls any team that drops off the ladder. Unless you’re Johor FA, in which case your state football association can rebrand you and parachute you up to the MSL in a shiny new guise.

A new hope

However, relegation isn’t the end of the world. Some teams use it to reform and come back stronger. Just look at Felda and PDRM this season, teams that benefited from renewed focus, canny management, and a fine recruitment policy. In fact, this season’s MPL campaign saw the participation of several big names in the local scene, such as Shukor Adan and Indra Putra Mahayuddin (both Felda), Muslim Ahmad (PDRM), Zaquan Adha (JDT II), and Yong Kuong Yong (Penang), amongst others. Nonetheless, it was the unheralded foreign players that shone, particularly PDRM duo Ali Ashfaq and Charles Chad Souza (both of whom combined with Bobby Gonzales for a whopping 41 league goals) and Felda’s Edward Junior Wilson, who won the MPL Golden Boot with his 19 goals.

Ali Ashfaq (L)

PDRM and Felda hit 63 and 58 goals respectively, in just 22 league matches. In contrast, MSL champions JDT struck “only” 39 times, the highest in their division. On face value, PDRM’s attacking trio of Ashfaq, Souza, and Gonzales alone outscored JDT. Of course, one could argue that MPL’s defences are of a lower quality than those in the MSL, but that’s what will happen if you pit top-level forwards against defenders at relatively smaller clubs. It’s rather cruel, but for the neutral fan, it makes for tremendous entertainment.

Remarkably, PDRM and Felda continued their scoring sprees even after the MPL season ended. The former were the highest-scoring side in the Malaysia Cup group stages; while the latter obliterated Selangor, the team with the least goals conceded and most clean sheets in this year’s Super League, 7-3 on aggregate, before edging JDT 4-3 in the first leg of the semi-finals.

Felda United - irresistible

Kedah, on the other hand, overcame a poor start to leapfrog three other Super League teams to the top of Group B with a win over Perak in the last match of the group stages. In the quarter-finals, they had to overturn a 1-3 first leg defeat to George Boateng’s Kelantan, routing them 3-0 in the return leg at the Darul Aman Stadium to make the semi-finals.

And now here we are, with two MPL teams reaching the penultimate round of the tournament, a feat that was not seen since the competition format was reduced from 20 teams to 16 in 2010. MPL teams have shown a steady progress since then, from having all second tier participants eliminated in the group stages in 2010 and 2011, to ATM reaching the final in 2012 and Sarawak losing to eventual champions Pahang in the semi-finals last season. Not bad for the teams from the inferior division.