SARAWAK had a brilliant season in the 2013 Premier League by performing well above expectations. The key target from the start was clear – to qualify for the Super League by the end of the season. The Crocs achieved that and more. It emerged as champions. It also remained unbeaten throughout the entire Premier League season, home and away! In fact, with two games left to play, Robert Alberts and the Crocs had already clinched the title and earned promotion to the Super League for 2014.
Judging by the sterling results produced, one cannot blame some fans who felt that Sarawak looked more like a Super League outfit than a Premier League team in 2013. After all, the team went 22 matches undefeated.
But we should not get too far ahead of ourselves. Lest it be forgotten – Sarawak had indeed been playing in the Super League in the previous year (2012) but were relegated at the end of it.
So what happened?
Sarawak had finished that 2012 season in 12th place among teams in the nation’s top flight. It was left to fight for survival in the play-offs to stay in the Super League. But the team also failed in those play-off matches.
Football Association of Sarawak (FAS) president Datu Sudarsono Osman probably got it right then when he viewed relegation to the Premier League at the end of 2012 as some kind of a blessing.
“Ascend to the Super League may have come too fast and too soon for the team as they flirted with success. Descend to the Premier League, on the other hand, offered an opportunity to rebuild and further strengthened the team,” he had said.
The championship season
The rest of the 2013 Premier League season, as they say, is history.
The Crocs went on the rampage from Jan 7 to July 5 – a total of 22 matches (home and away). 18 wins, 4 draws and no loss for a total of 58 points. The team kept a clean sheet for 13 of the 22 matches. They scored a total of 49 goals for the season including the 5-0 and 7-0 hammering of UiTM FC and NS Betaria respectively.
There were two defining matches during the season, according to Robert Alberts.
The first was the away match against Kedah on April 12 when a 10-men Sarawak team came from behind to snatch a 1-1 draw.
“Although the match was not a turning point for Sarawak, the team really showed that they are serious in achieving our target during that time which was not only to qualify to the Super League but in style as well,” the coach recalled.
The other was the 1-0 victory over Sime Darby FC at home on May 5.
Up to that point, both team were fighting neck-to-neck for the top spot in the table standings.
Before that match, arch rival Sime Darby FC were on top leading with two points above second-placed Sarawak. After that win by a solitary goal at Stadium Negeri Sarawak never looked back and stayed on top of the league for the rest of the season.
The 2013 Malaysia Cup campaign
Sarawak, however, failed to impress in the 2013 FA Cup competition. It bowed out to Kelantan in the quarter-finals.
In contrast, the team’s Malaysia Cup campaign left their fans breathless.
They went all the way to the semi-finals, only to be beaten 2-4 (on aggregate) by eventual champions Pahang. The team kept their unbeaten record at Stadium Negeri.
Fans felt Sarawak missed another good shot at the Malaysia Cup. But Robert Alberts remained positive after his team held Pahang to a 1-1 draw in the second leg at home.
“Although it would be nice to qualify to the final and have a showdown with Kelantan, I think we performed better than our initial expectations for this competition,” said Alberts during the post-match conference.
After all, it had been 14 long years since Sarawak last reached the final four of the nation’s premier football tournament.
The football season ended and the build-up for the team began in earnest for the next season.
FAS and Robert Alberts started preparation for the Super League challenge in 2014.
Among the players from the 2013 team dropped was Cameroonian Guy Bwele, who will best be remembered by fans as the team’s mid-field general.
Another left out was Sabah-born Bobby Gonzales who had top scored for the Crocs in the 2013 season.
Fans can look forward to an exciting season in 2014 just as much as the Crocs can look forward to the support of their legion of fans.
Again FAS president Sudarsono might have hit the right note in saying that Sarawak has arguably the most passionate fans in the league.
Speaking to thesundaypost recently, he hoped that they would continue to support the Crocs with the same fervor as they have done in recent years.
“Where else in the country can we find such passionate set of fans like these? We hope the fans will continue their strong support and we will also do our best in delivering our part in bringing more success to Sarawak,” he said.
“This is the time, a dawn of a new era for the team. I believe that Sarawak football scene has never been this exciting since the heydays of the team in the late 1980.”
Now Sarawak are back playing with the big boys in 2014.
Last season’s Premier League win was indeed memorable but fans should remember that the Crocs were playing in Division Two, not in the top tier.
The omission of Guy Bwele and Bobby Gonzales surprised many observers and fans. But dropping the team’s ‘mid-field general’ and top scorer must, first and foremost, be seen in the context of the need for changes and re-alighment for the team to survive or succeed in the Super League.
We can only begin to assess the impact of these changes when the new season starts on Jan 18.