Aide Iskandar: The man with the golden goals

SINGAPORE - Just four years into his fledgling football coaching career, Aide Iskandar has two big burdens on his shoulders: Win that elusive first SEA Games gold medal next month and then repeat the feat at home when the 2015 Games comes to the new Sports Hub.

The twin goals are a big task for the 38-year-old former national captain. But it is one he is relishing and willing to put in the hours, even if it means making many personal sacrifices.

Already, he has to contend with the flip side of his quest for success: Not only does he have to handle the hopes of a nation thirsty for a SEA Games football triumph but he also has to contend with criticism that he is not the right man for such a demanding job.

"There is always pressure," said Aide, who saw his Courts Young Lions side finish dead last in the 12-team S-League, 12 points away from the 11th-placed team.

"As head coach, I have to deliver, especially when this current crop of Under-23s are touted as one of the best generations Singapore has ever produced.

"But I've been through this as a player. I've the experience as a former national captain and that really helps me to handle situations like this."

The Football Association of Singapore (FAS) has given him the target of reaching the final in Myanmar next month. Having inherited the core of V. Sundramoorthy's Malaysian Super League winning team, many expect gold.

But come 2015, there is little doubt of what is expected from the FAS and public. Nothing less than gold will do, if Singapore's most popular sport is to rally a nation.

And while Aide has the experience of winning three ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Cups (in 1998, 2004 and 2007), as well as earning 121 international caps, the enormity of the SEA Games mission has not escaped his thoughts.

"I have just one bronze medal from the 1995 Chiang Mai Games," recalled Aide, who took over from Sundram following his resignation last month. "And that was with a very good team that had Fandi Ahmad, Nazri Nasir, Lim Tong Hai and Malek Awab."

But he believes he has the players who just could do the business in Myanmar, especially the spine of the team: set-piece expert Shahfiq Ghani, all-action midfielder Hariss Harun, dominant centre-back Safuwan Baharudin and reliable goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud.

"This is a very focused and disciplined group. If they carry out the coach's plan, I am very sure of getting results," said Aide who started out as assistant coach at Sengkang Punggol in 2009.

"I have worked with many of the LionsXII players and this familiarity is an advantage."

Yet, even if he may be familiar with the boys, it has not stopped him from poring through hours of videos to dissect matches and formulate game plans to get the best out of teams. He personally edits highlights to show his players what went right and wrong.

It is amazing what one can learn from just a few minutes of footage, he says, as he bids to get his teams playing a modern-style possession game.

But despite his modern coaching philosophy and willingness to try new things, his detractors, mostly online, point to his lack of results.

They point to the Courts Young Lions' poor season, in which the team finished bottom of the 12-team league with just five wins out of 27 games.

Aide sighed at the mention of the online attacks, and opened up on the constraints he had to face, with the team made up largely of Under-21 players with only one foreign signing, Canadian forward Sherif El-Masri.

He also had to deal with the players' national service commitments as he started this campaign with 13 of his squad of 31 still serving national service.

It took them 13 games to register their first point and another seven more matches to notch their first victory, but Aide managed to rally his youngsters to win their last three matches.

With some satisfaction, he said: "If you look carefully, we didn't suffer any big thrashings. The team clearly showed a lot of improvement in the latter half of the season and we are on track for the 2015 SEA Games."

His peers are backing him to succeed. Said Woodlands Wellington coach Salim Moin, who is set to join S-League champions Tampines Rovers: "Aide's results at Courts Young Lions do not mean that he is a bad coach. The best young players are with the LionsXII and he is left with the rest.

"But as the season continued, his team got fitter and had better understanding.

"Aide is young and still studying the game. I hope he has the belief in himself and be decisive in his tactics and philosophy."

But holding so many coaching hats has affected his family life.

Aide is married to Ezreen Taib Zohri and they have three children, sons Andre (12 years old) and Adiel (nine) and daughter Estee (six). He said: "My wife hardly sees me. I barely have time for my children. I've missed anniversaries, four of my wife's birthdays and my kids' birthdays."

He got married on May 7, 2000. A day later, he was back at training with then-club Home United.

"We still have not gone for our honeymoon, 13 years after our wedding," he revealed with a wry smile.

In 2004, they decided to have an induced birth so that Adiel could be born ahead of the Lions' AFF Cup campaign, which they won.

He said: "My wife went through all that because she wanted me to have a clear mind when I lead the team during the tournament. "She understands that my life is all about football and now, I have this dream to be a top coach."

meng@sph.com.sg

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