SINGAPORE - It has been barely a year since Aidil Sharin took the reins of Malaysian side Kedah FA but, already, the Singaporean coach has surpassed expectations.
On Saturday (July 27) night, he steered Kedah to Malaysia FA Cup glory with a 1-0 injury-time win over Perak in front of 83,520 fans at the Bukit Jalil Stadium in Kuala Lumpur.
It was the first time a Singaporean coach lifted the cup since Fandi Ahmad led the now-defunct LionsXII to victory in 2015.
The 42-year-old described the win as a "dream", considering the target set by Kedah for his new-look side was only a place in the quarter-finals.
"You wouldn't expect in your first year, with a new team, to make it to the final, let alone win it," Aidil told The Straits Times in a phone interview from Alor Star on Sunday.
"I will definitely enjoy and savour the moment. This is certainly a blessing."
Aidil was appointed Kedah coach in October last year, joining from Singapore Premier League side Home United, whom he had guided to the Asean zone title in the continental AFC Cup competition two months prior.
With Kedah looking to tighten their purse strings, established stars like imports Liridon Krasniqi and Sandro, and Malaysian internationals Syazwan Zainon, Akram Mahinan and Akhyar Rashid all left.
Aidil set about building a new-look side on a budget dwarfed by those at clubs like Johor Darul Ta'zim and Terengganu FA, and a top-five finish in the Malaysia Super League (MSL), and making the quarter-finals in cup competitions, were the management's targets for the team.
The MSL concluded on July 21 with Kedah finishing fourth, improving on their sixth-place finish last term.
"At the start, many people questioned: Why hire a Singapore coach? Why not an European one?" said Aidil, whose contract with Kedah runs out at the end of the 2020 season.
"So I am very satisfied with our results and achievements, and how the season has gone so far."
Having far exceeded expectations in the FA Cup, the squad are set to be handsomely rewarded.
The team are rumoured to be in line for a bonus of RM1 million ($332,480) from the club's management. This is on top of the win bonuses written into their contracts, and the competition prize money.
An invite to Istana Anak Bukit - the Sultan of Kedah's royal palace and official residence - has also been extended to the squad.
On Sunday afternoon, the team returned to Alor Setar and were greeted by hundreds of supporters at the airport, eager to touch, or take a photo with, the club's latest piece of silverware. Working with the pressure of the team's manic supporters, said Aidil, has helped him grow as a coach.
"Kedah fans are among the most fanatical fans in Malaysia; they love football," he said.
"When we win, we are praised very highly. But when we lose, I don't even dare to go out and find food!"
This pressure, along with him having to leave his family in Singapore, is the hardest thing about coaching abroad, Aidil added.
He plans to return to Singapore on Monday night to see his wife, Salina Mohamed Zin and two children - son Aizac Hayden, 10, and daughter Alivia, nine - before returning to Malaysia to prepare his charges for their first Malaysia Cup game against Negeri Sembilan on Saturday.
Aidil added: "You only get better when you go out of your comfort zone, and I believe the experience I am gaining here will only help me improve."
Singapore defender Shakir Hamzah, who was roped in by Aidil as one of the club's five imports, was a rock at the heart of Kedah's back line and said he was thankful for the support of Aidil, his teammates, the club's management, fans, and his family.
The 26-year-old told ST: "I do not have the exact words to describe what I am feeling, but it has been nothing short of amazing."
Aidil is the latest Singaporean coach to excel overseas. In March, 43-year-old Akbar Nawas and his assistant K.Balagumaran - also a Singaporean - won India's I-League with Chennai City. Akbar was later awarded the I-League's best coach accolade.
Football Association of Singapore (FAS) general secretary Yazeen Buhari said: "The FAS congratulates Aidil Sharin for winning the prestigious FA Cup; not an easy feat considering the intense competition. We are proud to have one of our very own local coaches fly the Singapore flag at the international level and showing their mettle.
"Aidil has proven that he has what it takes to succeed and winning the Cup is just the latest addition to the list of accomplishments he had with Home United.
"It's heartening to see the growing number of local coaches like him and Akbar in overseas stints, a sign of confidence and high regard foreign teams have of our coaches."