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Zainal Abidin Hassan, Part II: Coaching, Cups and the threat of relegation

In Part I of our interview with Malaysian legend Zainal Abidin Hassan, we travelled back to his renowned playing days. In Part II, we explore his transition into the coaching ranks, his successes and his biggest challenge...

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Relegation is a word that has never been required in Zainal Abidin Hassan’s vocabulary – until now.

As a legendary player, Zainal spent the best part of the 80’s and 90’s thrilling crowds, scoring goals and chasing titles.

All my coaching career I have been trying to win titles, but I tell you this is bigger, the pressure is bigger

The majority of his coaching career has also been spent looking up at the top rather than down at the bottom.

So coming into the Penang job in March this year with the Panthers on just two points after eight games was something very different.

“It is a challenge,” Zainal admitted to FourFourTwo. “But it’s a good challenge and the timing is right.

“I have never been down here in this position before, it is a different feeling. All my coaching career I have been trying to win titles, but I tell you this is bigger, the pressure is bigger and it is different.

“To try to maintain the place in this division and not to be relegated is a big deal.”

Indeed, it would a fine achievement to add to a lengthening coaching CV.

Replacing cleats with a clipboard

Zainal can not explain why, but he was always sure that as soon as he hung up those golden boots that had represented his country almost 140 times, and served Selangor and Pahang with such distinction, he wanted to coach.

With Dollah we made a new, fresh local team (at Pahang) and got beautiful results

After working for the Football Association of Malaysia with various youth teams and becoming national team assistant to Allan Harris, Zainal entered the club scene early in the new century.

Much of that time was spent with Pahang in various roles, sometimes with former striker partner Dollah Salleh and sometimes alone.

Famously in 2014, Zainal delivered the FA Cup and Malaysia Cup to the Elephants, but the call to return to Selangor was hard to resist.

As a player he divided his time between those two clubs and Selangor is where he grew up and established himself on the pitch.

“These are two big stages and produce a lot of young players,” the 55-year-old said. “The fan base at Selangor is huge.

Zainal during his chat with FourFourTwo

“Selangor fans really know their football and with the history there, and the players, they always want to be at the top.

“For Pahang it is different. Sometimes they are top, sometimes not, but it is a great place too. With Dollah we made a new, fresh local team and got beautiful results. But both places are special.”

Controversy, but not of his making

After the success of 2014, Zainal spent much of 2015 being linked to the Selangor job. That job wasn’t available at the time, it was occupied by Mehmet Durakovic, but it was an open secret that he would be on his way out at the end of the season.

The popular Australian coach signed off by leading the Red Giants to Malaysia Cup win No.33.

While many felt Durakovic had been badly treated by Selangor – though that was hardly his successor’s fault – that Malaysia Cup victory made a tough job even tougher for Zainal.

[NEXT: Pressure at the Red Giants reaches boiling point]