FOR most young footballers around the world, English football would be pretty high up the list in terms of life goals – pun intended.
And that’s why Sathyswaran Manoharn, 18, and Ariff Saufi Abdullah, 16, were both so excited when they found out they had won the chance to train with the Queens Park Rangers academy in London.
“It was the happiest moment of my life,” said Sathys, who plans to study engineering but dreams of being a professional footballer. When his brother, Sathys’s biggest football inspiration, heard the news, he hugged him and cried.
The R.AGE crew tagged along to document the boys’ journey, and to see if they could make it at a club that was only just in the Premier League last season, battling it out with your Manchester Uniteds, Chelseas, Liverpools and Arsenals.
And even though QPR’s current season hasn’t exactly gone to plan (the club is 11th in the Championship, the second tier of English football), at the grassroots level, the club still has strong foundations.
Part of that foundation is the work done by QPR In The Community Trust, which organises the annual AirAsia-QPR Coaching Clinic Tour to uncover Asian footballing talent.
The best are then whisked away to London where they’d not only get to train with professional coaches, but also experience first hand what it’s like being part of an English football club.
And maybe, just maybe, they could impress the QPR coaches enough to take things to the next level.
The English game
Sathys and Ariff said they trained like crazy to impress the AirAsia-QPR tour coaches. Sathys said he trained twice a day, every day, even in the rain.
That work ethic would serve Sathys and Ariff well, as they went through the same training as all the other boys at the QPR academy, where the people – almost literally – eat, drink and live football.
Every aspect of the academy players’ daily routines are designed to make them the best players they can be. Their meals, for example, are carefully designed to help them perform.
“That’s why we haven’t had any fish and chips so far!” said Sathys with a laugh.
Not everything about the experience was new. Both of them already play for local youth teams back in Malaysia, so they were familiar with some of the drills.
As an added bonus, the boys were also allowed to watch the QPR first team in training, which means they were able to see how top professionals like Clint Hill, Nedum Onuoha and Robert Green train, under the watchful eyes of manager and former Chelsea striker Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink.
But what really struck Sathys and Ariff was the amount of tactical and theoretical training the junior teams go through. They spent almost as much time in the classroom as they did on the pitch.
All their training sessions were recorded and played back to them for analysis and discussion.
Sathys said the coaches were constantly asking the players to evaluate their own performaces, which helps them become more mature as players.
Academy coach Kes Casely-Hawford was impressed by the Asian boys’ technical skills, but noted a difference in their approach to the game.
“They share the ball quite a lot,” he said, adding that they were more reluctant to take initiative on the ball, and more keen to pass it around.
“And to be honest, they were a little more understanding of each other and themselves when they made mistakes.”
Lee Hayes, another QPR academy coach, said the Asian youngsters should learn to have more of a competitive streak.
“For our young players, it’s probably because they’re brought up to be very competitive in sports, especially football. And in the environment that we create, it is about being the best of the best at all times,” he said.
The gulf in class became apparent when the boys were put through a friendly match against non-league side Wealdstone FC (where former England left-back Stuart Pearce started his career), which they lost 5-0.
Granted, the match was played in freezing temperatures, but Ariff said they were simply caught out by their opponents’ physical strength and speed.
“Even though they were the under-16 team, they were really big and tall, and they played with such a high tempo,” he said.
The Asian myth
After the match, R.AGE spoke to QPR technical director Chris Ramsey (he manged the club when they were in the Premier League), and he dismissed the myth that Asian players were inferior simply because of their size.
“In the past, people in the scouting system had a stigma against Asian players, that they were small, or not passionate about soccer the way English players were,” said Ramsey.
“That was a myth that’s misguided, really, and I think most clubs are trying to change the mindsets of the people recruiting players.”
Players like Leicester City’s Shinji Okazaki – whose all-action displays has helped his club reach the top of the Premier League table this season – and Swansea City’s Ki Sung-Yueng have done a lot to help bust those myths, but still, Ramsey believes English clubs could do more.
On their part, Ramsey said QPR is open to signing any player regardless of his nationality – all that matters is that they’re good enough.
“We’re hoping the diversity that we’re trying to bring to the club reflects the people that support the club – locals and those from around the world, so I think it’s long overdue in English football for an Asian player to be at the top,” he said.
To give the boys some added motivation to aim for the top, QPR and AirAsia arranged for the boys to form the guard of honour during an actual match, QPR vs Derby County.
They were also introduced to the Loftus Road faithful at half-time, and took part in some light-hearted training drills on the pitch.
“I’ve never been on a proper football pitch before!” said Ariff.
Sathys and Ariff then watched the rest of the game from the AirAsia VIP box, where QPR chairman Tan Sri Tony Fernandes himself took some time out to speak with them.
The match itself ended in an important 2-0 win for QPR, which kept their faint hopes of promotion to the Premier League (via the play-offs) alive. Even then, the fans were in fine form, singing and chanting throughout the game.
It was a fine example of the passion of the English game, but according to Sathys and Ariff, passion was something Malaysian football has never lacked anyway.
Both are huge fans of Malaysian football. They both dream of playing for Selangor and, someday, Harimau Malaysia.
When asked if the atmosphere at Loftus Road was any different from what they had experienced back home, Ariff laughed and said: “Sama je!”