Straight into the fold

Straight into the fold
Baihakki Khaizan undergo LionsXII team training with teammates at ITE Central, Ang Mo Kio.

A distinctive, deep voice was booming through a near-empty hallway leading to a football field at ITE College Central, where the LionsXII trained yesterday evening. That meant just one thing - Baihakki Khaizan is back.

"That's what we need," coach Fandi Ahmad later said of the centre-back's vocal nature. "That's what you look for in a defender."

Yesterday marked the 30-year-old's first training session back with the defending Malaysian Super League (MSL) champions since his time at Johor Darul Takzim came to a premature end.

But, already, the Singapore international is being counted upon to stamp his authority on a young team struggling for consistency.

"He's achieved a lot in football and knows how the Malaysian league works so he'll be able to guide the younger boys along," Fandi said of Baihakki - a key LionsXII player for the past two seasons.

Also welcoming the 1.9m-tall defender back to the fold was Safuwan Baharudin, who has been captaining the side in the absence of injured skipper Isa Halim.

Widely recognised as the team's standout performer this term, the 22-year-old attributed his increasing maturity to his defensive partner's influence.

"He was always there guiding me along," Safuwan pointed out. "From humility on the pitch to discipline off it, I learnt so much from him and now, the younger boys can do the same.

"Having a player of his calibre can only be good for the team."

His leadership qualities aside, Baihakki's return also gives coach Fandi an option of deploying Safuwan in a more advanced role.

And yesterday evening's training suggested that the 51-year-old tactician will do just that, with his new signing playing alongside Afiq Yunos at the heart of defence.

Baihakki has no qualms about slotting in alongside a new defensive partner.

"Whatever plans Fandi has for the team, I will just follow," said the veteran with 105 international caps.

"I'm just here to do my best and not interrupt anything."

Baihakki's first game is likely to be next Saturday's MSL one at Terengganu.

The Singapore outfit are sixth in the 12-team standings - seven points adrift of leaders Pahang and the lanky defender has downplayed hopes that his return will signal an immediate turnaround.

"I'm no Superman - I won't be able to bring the team straight to the top," said Baihakki who, along with fellow LionsXII mainstays Hariss Harun and Shahril Ishak, moved across the Causeway at the end of the 2013 campaign.

"But it is mathematically still possible for us to retain the title and I'm here to make the most of every match.

"So let's start winning."

fabiusc@sph.com.sg

This article was published on May 10 in The Straits Times.

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