Football: Late bloomer Azhar is lovin' it

Azhar Sairudin on the ball during Lions training. While the 29-year-old regrets not taking the game more seriously in his youth, he hopes his maturity and development at Home United will earn him a maiden cap.
Azhar Sairudin on the ball during Lions training. While the 29-year-old regrets not taking the game more seriously in his youth, he hopes his maturity and development at Home United will earn him a maiden cap. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Former McDonald's delivery boy making up for lost time and earns national call-up

Moving the football around with finesse and finishing off passing moves clinically in training, it is perhaps surprising that it has taken so long for Azhar Sairudin, 29, to be called up to the national team.

Yet, while most of his peers had already established themselves in the S-League by their early 20s, the Home United midfielder signed his first professional contract only when he was 22.

The former national Under-18 and U-16 player did not take football seriously in his teens, and had he not woken up from his slumber, the accurate passer would be doing delivery of a very different kind today.

He told The Straits Times: "Being playful, I didn't turn up for training (with the Woodlands Wellington Prime League squad), and hung out with the wrong group of people."

Rather than honing his craft on the pitch, he shared packs of cigarettes with his friends, and his future was as hazy as the puffs of nicotine.

Yet, just as it seemed like his sporting career has fizzled out before it started, Azhar, who worked part-time to deliver McDonald's orders, had a chance meeting with his former age-group coach R. Suriamurthi in 2008.

He recalled: "He (Suria) gave me a hell of a talk, and asked why I wasn't playing football. When I said I needed to work for the money, he called Home United, and I got into the Prime League squad during mid-season."

Former national U-16 coach Suria said: "Azhar was actually part of my first 11 in the U-16 team, I didn't feel it was right for him to be working at McDonald's.

"Maybe he went astray and wasn't taken care of. That's why I asked him to come back to football... he has everything to succeed, it's just a matter of training."

However, Azhar feared that he could no longer match the intensity demanded by the game, having not donned his boots for some time.

He credited his return to peak condition to Surachai Jaturapattarapong, who was then Home's Prime League coach. The former Thailand captain even accompanied Azhar on runs in Bishan Park to build up his fitness.

The soft-spoken Azhar said of his former mentor: "He always said that if I train really hard, I would be one of Singapore's best players.

"I was really thankful for the personal training he did with me. He's one of the reasons why I still play football."

That hard work was rewarded in 2009 when then Home coach P.N. Sivaji gave Azhar a professional contract.

His first training session was especially memorable for him, when he saw the likes of Singapore internationals Shahril Ishak and Shi Jiayi putting in extra work even before team training began.

With a grin, he said: "These players were all on the pitch; I was thinking: I'm the youngest player here, what am I doing outside?

"That was a turning point for me. I slowly grew up and tried to be more matured... I really learned a lot from these mentors."

The attacking midfielder has since become an asset, with his creativity in the No. 10 role driving Home up to third in the league.

He eventually received the "unexpected" Lions call-up last Friday, as part of V. Sundramoorthy's squad for the AYA Bank Cup in Myanmar.

Home coach Philippe Aw said that it was "long overdue" for Azhar, who has stepped up as a leader of a young squad (average age of 24.4).

He shared: "Before we actually commence training, he gets the young ones together to do rondo (high-intensity, circular passing at speed)."

Finally training with the nation's best footballers, a first cap this weekend would be the icing on the cake for the late bloomer.

Azhar said: "I took a really long route to the national team, and now getting (called up) all of a sudden, it's a big deal for me.

"I would be lying if I said I don't regret (not taking football seriously). If only I could turn back time... I'm not sure if I can keep up the pace at my age, but I'll still try my best."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2016, with the headline 'Late bloomer Azhar is lovin' it'. Print Edition | Subscribe