It was in 2003 that I had the good fortune of meeting Sir Bobby Robson in the flesh. Weeks earlier I was given the opportunity to talk to him in a teleconference call ahead of the FA Premier League Asia Cup.
"Nobody wants to lose. We are going to have a crack at the title. Everybody is shaping up well for the tournament. You can expect us to play the full squad. It comes a bit too early for us in the pre-season but we will be facing quality opponents which will serve us well for the upcoming season.
"Yes I do remember the 1978 trip. I had just lifted the FA Cup with Ipswich Town when the FA asked me to take the England B side to KualaLumpur. We drew 1-1, I can't recall how the match went exactly but it was held under conditions which we were not accustomed to. And Malaysia scored through a long-range effort if I'm not mistaken."
Malaysians remember the match for the late Mokhtar Dahari's strike which flew past Manchester City keeper Joe Corrigan after his surging run took him past Nottingham Forest's David Needham and Liverpool leftback Alan Kennedy at Merdeka Stadium.
The 2003 trip was to be his last. Sir Bobby has passed on. Read here
Read Lazarus Rokk's piece in 2003.
SO, Sir Bobby Robson is back in town after 25 years. For some strange reason, for me at least, his return to our shores as the Newcastle United manager, has flung me back in time into that era of Malaysian football when it was so much easier being proud to be a Malaysian.
The year was 1978. Robson who was then manager of Ipswich, had made his first visit to Malaysia as the England B manager. To me, a fledgling sportswriter then, the white-haired statesman was not who I had wanted to meet.
My sights were trained on his mecurial left winger, Gordon Hill, who shared a common bond with me - Manchester United. But I came away from that Press conference at the Bunga Raya Lounge at the old airport in Subang, compelled to remember Robson for what I thought then as a rebellious 23-year-old, a condescending remark which seemed to epitomise the arrogance of the English. Totally unaware of the Malaysian sensitivities, Robson asked the Malaysian corp at the start of that Press conference upon his arrival, if we understood English.
While most of us were angry but too shocked to retaliate, the New Straits Times senior soccer writer then, P'ng Hong Kwang with a cool head stood up and said: "For the little English we know, I am sure we will get along just fine."
As for me, in only my third year in the job and choking with anger, all I could do was mutter under my breath: "I don't know about our English, but I sure as hell wish we will kick your pompous backsides in football."
But for that little tacky remark, Robson turned out to be a warm and friendly person, never failing to oblige us with some good quotes and lighting up conversations with his sense of humour.
And yes, we kicked their backsides in football, the right boot of the late Mokhtar Dahari denting English pride with a well-struck blow to the top corner post past the intimidating Joe Corrigan to cancel out PaulMariner's lead in what was an epic 1-1 draw that has since made time stand still for Malaysian football.
Robson was so impressed with that strike and his game, that he even offered Mokhtar a striker's role with Ipswich. Many felt Mokhtar could have changed the face of Malaysian football had he taken the job. But I guess we will never know now, would we? Still, Robson must have left puzzled, but impressed with our football from a nation who until then he must have thought spoke little or no English, and walked around in loin cloth.
Now, 25 years later, as English football's elderly statesman revisits Malaysia, he probably believes we speak English better than the Queen, and our football must have improved by leaps and bounds. He has yet to see our football, but he would have had a taste of our English since he arrived on Monday. But what I know is, he must be impressed by the great strides Malaysia has taken as a progressive nation. But from Friday, he will come face to face with our football, and I wish I could say with that kind of gumption of 1978, that we will kick their backsides again. If only Mokhtar, and goalkeeper R.Arumugam were alive. If only Soh Chin Aun, M. Chandran, Santokh Singh, Yip Chee Keong, Wong Choon Wah, Shukor Salleh, Isa Bakar, and Reduan Abdullah were still playing, there would have been more optimism. But sad to say, while the rest of the nation went forward, as the buildings got taller and more intimidating, our English got bad, I got bald, and our football got even worse.
The football got so bad that apart from the players, their coaches and the FA of Malaysia, I doubt there is anyone else who can name the starting 11 of the national team today. But ask any football-loving kid to name players from Manchester United, Arsenal, or Liverpool, and he will rattle them off without blinking an eyelid. As for me, losing hair over our English and our football didn't turn out to be too bad, as thankfully clean shaven heads are in fashion now, and the women just love it.