FFT Interview: The Englishman that led Malaysia past Fandi's Lions

Trevor Hartley, an Englishman with intimate knowledge of both the Malaysian and Singaporean football scenes, recalls the time his Tigers overcame the Lions in the SEA Games final…

We are part of The Trust Project What is it?

There aren’t many people who can say they have coached the national teams of both Malaysia and Singapore, but Trevor Hartley is one such person.

The Englishman arrived in the Lion City in 1976 and was there for four years.

The contract was for one year and the brief was as simple as it comes: win the SEA Games

His time in charge of Malaysia a decade later was shorter, but would prove very sweet indeed.

Hartley had been a major figure in Singapore football as technical director of the federation before later taking over national team duties.

In 1980, the former Bournemouth star from his playing days then headed back to England.

After time with Tottenham Hotspur, including a stint as their caretaker manager, he returned to Southeast Asia in 1989 to take over the Malaysian national team.

The contract was for one year and the brief was as simple as it comes: win the SEA Games that were to be held in the Malaysian capital.

As Sea Games hosts, expectations were high. Pic:

Considering the current climate, Hartley would surely have some sympathy for Frank Bernhardt, the coach of Malaysia’s under-22 team.

The German told FourFourTwo in early February he was struggling with the lack of preparation time for the 2017 SEA Games, to be held in Kuala Lumpur, saying things would be different in England or Germany. 

Almost 30 years ago, things were different in Malaysia too.

“I had everything I needed," recalled Hartley. "We used the 1990 World Cup qualifiers (held in early 1989) and then we went on a short tour of Asia to play games.

"I made certain decisions and used the preparation to look at different styles of play.”

The Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) was happy with the experimentation and the clubs were also on the same page.

“They didn’t care about results at the time and just cared about the SEA Games,” Hartley continued.

“In World Cup qualification, we came second to South Korea and that pleased me because Korea were a very good side. 

"We needed experience and we used that experience and then we were ready for the SEA Games.

Fandi and Sundram, 1989 teammates, both went into coaching. Pic: Weixiang Lim/FFT

“It really served us well and the only difficulty (during the tournament) was against Thailand in the semi-final. Apart from that, we were rarely in trouble.”

Malaysia had a perfect group stage, defeating the Philippines, Brunei and Indonesia, before a Zainal Abidin Hassan goal in the 71st minute took the hosts past Thailand in the semi-finals.

Preparation, Hartley stressed, was the key to success.

If you know you are on a year contract, you can say what you like and do what you like

“Having the right preparation obviously makes a huge difference,” said Hartley.

“The players got to know me and I got to know them. If you know you are on a year contract, you know that you can say what you like and do what you like.

"The people at FAM wanted to change to a younger team. I said that is my decision and I wanted to see the older players first.

“You can bring players in too early. I was there for a year and I knew that I was there for a year. I stuck with the senior players as I wasn’t going to win the SEA Games by playing youngsters.”

Following the narrow victory over Thailand, the only thing standing between Hartley and his stated objective was a clash with Singapore in the gold medal match.

Hartley coaching Sunderland in 1994. Pic: UPPAPhotoshot

The Englishman still had fond feelings of his time in Singapore, such that he half hoped the Lions would lose their semi-final against Indonesia so he wouldn’t have to face his old employers in the decider.

But in the 90th minute against the Indonesians, and with the score locked at 0-0, Fandi Ahmad did what he did best and got the all-important goal.

The match-up in the decider was, and remains, the first and only meeting between the two rivals in a SEA Games final.

There was always a real desire. All involved in Singapore want to brag about being the best

They had met twice earlier that year in World Cup qualification, with Malaysia winning one and drawing the other.

“The rivalry was always fierce and this was highly promoted by the press,” Hartley said.

“When I had been with Singapore, they always wanted to beat the Malaysian states, there was always a real desire. All involved in Singapore want to brag about being the best.

“I was still very friendly with a lot of the players and maybe it was difficult for them too. I felt emotional before, during and after the game – but I was determined to win.”

So determined that he played a few mind games ahead of the final.

“The Singapore coach was one of my ex-coaches,” he explained. “I wasn’t worried that he would know my secrets.

Singapore fans have never tasted SEA Games gold. Pic: Weixiang Lim/FFT

"I may have let it be known that two players of mine would not be playing in the final before selecting them. I wanted to cause some confusion.”

He was confident of victory, however, even without the little tricks.

“We were just a better and better-balanced team and, as I said, we had developed together over the year.”

A terrible storm in the first half made for difficult conditions at the Merdaka Stadium, which was full of almost 50,000 fans, but the Tigers adapted.

At half-time, I told the players they had been by far the better team and they had to go out and win the game again

They took an early lead thanks to a Singapore own goal, before Fandi intervened again to level things up.

“We had played well. At half-time, I told the players they had been by far the better team and that they had to go out and win the game again.

“I took the wingers off and played down the middle as they couldn’t run with the ball.

“I played one behind the front two and we went on to win 3-1.”

Lim Teong Kim and Dollah Salleh got the second-half goals.

“Everyone in Malaysia was delighted,” recalled Hartley. “I think they made the next day a national holiday, though by the time it was announced it was late in the evening so people didn’t know.

“The only downside for me was that it was against Singapore.

“Other than that it was great – until they dipped me into the running track water jump.”

Main photo: