By IAN YEE
AS an aspiring footballer growing up in the village of Semban in Sarawak, Gabrieal Katz Anak Mering, 17, had never heard of the Queen’s Park Rangers (QPR) football club. And why should he? Where he comes from, the English game is a distant dream. They hardly get to watch it on TV.
So, imagine how excited he was last week when he and seven other youngsters from Malaysia and Singapore were sent to London – his first trip outside of the country – for a training stint at the QPR academy, where he also got to meet the club’s manager, Harry Redknapp, and members of the first-team squad.
We’re talking about top players like Ravel Morrison, Richard Dunne, Shaun Wright-Phillips and many more. Gabrieal didn’t know who any of them were, of course – and he didn’t understand a word Redknapp had said to him when they met – but as a young boy dreaming of making it as a footballer, he knew that these people were at the level he aspires to, and that was enough to make him happy.
Gabrieal and the other three Malaysians who made the trip – Mohd Safiee Ahmad, 17; Muhammad Aqil Faiq Mohd Faizal, 14; and Ainol Iskandar Mahsun, 17 – were winners of the AirAsia QPR Coaching Clinic in Malaysia, organised by the QPR In The Community Trust (the community service arm of the club) and AirAsia, whose group chief operating officer Tan Sri Tony Fernandes is also famously the current owner of QPR.
The programme saw coaches from the QPR academy (where David Beckham’s son Brooklyn trained last year) running two weeks of coaching clinics for young footballers across Malaysia and Singapore, with the four best talents spotted by the coaches winning a 10-day training stint at QPR, a club that just last season were in the Premier League, and could very well return to next season, too.
R.AGE travelled to London to follow the boys’ experience, from their very chilly outdoor training sessions to their first ever ride up the London Eye; and they were clearly loving every minute of it.
Experience of a lifetime
The training stint started with the boys working with the very same coaches who spotted them in Malaysia. Many of the drills were new to the boys, and though it was a relatively short taste of what top level training is like, what they’ve learnt could help them in the long run.
As Safiee said: “It’s great, because now we can take these drills and continue applying them when we go home. We could also teach them to some of our teammates.”
In any case, improving the skills of the boys was never the main, immediate goal of the programme. According to QPR In The Community Trust CEO Andy Evans, the trust’s goal is always to “inspire people through football and the QPR brand”.
And that’s why the boys’ training at the academy was just part of the experience. The club and AirAsia also arranged for them to have a private tour of QPR’s Loftus Road stadium, and to form the guard of honour during the QPR vs Blackpool game in the English Championship.
Evans explained: “What we’ve tried to do is show the boys what life is like at a professional British club like QPR, especially for young players, who have to combine their education with their football requirements. Discipline is required, timeliness is required.
“Then we also exposed them to what it’s like being a first-team player. They watched the first team train, saw what level that was like, and also got to be out on the pitch when the players came out, to experience the atmosphere when you’re stood in front of 18,000 people at Loftus Road – that’s quite an experience to have.”
The boys also got to watch the match from an exclusive private box in the stadium and play their own four-a-side match on the Loftus Road pitch at half-time. Imagine that – playing on the same pitch that graced the Premier League’s best just last season.
The match itself was disappointing for QPR fans, which by now included eight boys from Malaysia and Singapore. It was a 1-1 draw that meant QPR would most likely miss out on automatic promotion to the Premier League. Still, the excitement of seeing 18,000 people in the stadium will their team on, with so much at stake, left a huge impression on the boys.
At the end of it, the boys were pretty much speechless. They were pretty quiet kids anyway. All Gabriel had to say was “syok lah” with a huge grin.
Evans said QPR is extremely keen to work with AirAsia to run the programme again next year, and to include youngsters from other ASEAN countries as well.