JOHOR - Johor wonder boy of football Hassan Yahya was a popular personality when the state rose to stardom in the football scene during the 1970s and 1980s.
The native from Tanjung in Muar was only 19 when he was recruited as a centre-half for the state team. His tenacity, versatility and endurance while playing for the State Economic Development Corporation (now J-Corp) captivated the state's talent scouts hunting for prolific players in an attempt to win top honours at national level.
The resilient footballer, who played several positions, including centre-half, central defender, feeder as well as striker, confided that to be a good player, one must be diligent, dedicated, witty and always agreeable with the coach.
Hassan, who represented the state team spanning 13 years (1972-1985), said his most memorable and enjoyable moment as a player was in 1985, his final term as a state player and skipper of the team.
"That year, we beat Kuala Lumpur 2-1 to win the Malaysia Cup for the first time. It was really an unforgettable experience.
"Although the venue of the game was advantageous to Kuala Lumpur (the finals was played at Merdeka Stadium), the players performed at their best with perfect passing and continuous attempts at goal.
"Down by a lone goal scored by a Kuala Lumpur player, we were undeterred for an equaliser. In the second half, a young Muhidin Hussein proved his skillfulness at the game by scoring two goals to the dismay of the spectators, particularly the Kuala Lumpur fans.
"The Johor crowd, though not as many, went wild and gave us a standing ovation and roared as we cruised to a well-deserved victory.
"Over at the Royal Box, the Sultan of Johor congratulated the winning team. After presenting medals and the trophy to me, the Sultan, who was also the Yang di-Pertuan Agong then, declared a public holiday for the state the following day.
"Another main factor for the victory was the astuteness of our coach, Ahmad Esa," said Hassan.
According to the former national player, Ahmad was a low-profile personality loved by all the players. He was appointed chief coach in 1980 by JFA president Datuk Suleiman Mohd Noor following his remarkable stint as the Johor Malays team trainer four years earlier.
His coaching tactic was proven after the Johor Malays team beat mighty Selangor Malays 2-1 during his first year as trainer.
"He groomed outstanding players in the likes of Ismail Ibrahim, Ahmad Marican, Muhidin Hussein, S. Sujeindran, Dollah Salleh and Khalid Shahadan. Most of them wore the national jersey for a while following the feat," said Hassan.
"The game was not marred by dirty tactics or involvement of bookies. Even the Kuala Lumpur supporters appreciated our impressive showmanship."
The 1986 Malaysia Cup tournament was, nevertheless, a different episode.
"That year, I was no longer a player, but upgraded to assistant coach, alongside Ahmad.
"We went along together and the earlier rounds of the competition were not an obstacle as we beat other states with big scores.
"Everything was plain sailing until we reached the end stages of the competition."
Played at the same venue, the final was an uphill task.
"They now faced mighty Selangor who fielded the trio of the late Mokhtar Dahari, Santokh Singh and the late R. Arumugam.
"Moments prior to the finals, team spirit gradually slipped away.
"The nostalgic feat of 1985 was suddenly gone and the entire organisation, including officials and players, was in turmoil.
"As expected, we were hammered 6-1 by Selangor with high flying Mokhtar scoring, to the joy of the Selangor fans.
"It was a nightmare for the Johor goal keeper Salleh Mohd Nor Salleh, who was later replaced by Ramli Dol, but it was too late."
What went wrong? According to Hassan there were two main factors.
"Outside intervention and foul play. Suddenly an unofficial coach emerged and created chaos in the team. The players were puzzled who they should refer to.
"In the wake of that horrible defeat, both Ahmad and I tendered our resignation.
"Soon after that, Ahmad became a player and later trained the Johor police football team while I became player and the coach of the J-Corp football club."