PENANG are the new Premier League champions with an impressive eight wins, two draws and a loss for the entire season.
With the promotion, we will be playing the big boys like Johor Darul Takzim and Kedah in the Super League next year.
I must confess I didn’t know much about the current winning team, except the coach Manzoor Azwira Wahid, who once marshalled the midfield for the Panthers back in the 90s.
The last I could remember about the Penang football team in recent years was the physics-defying wonder goal of Mohd Faiz Subri that earned him the FIFA Puskas Award.
But back in the late 90s, I used to be a die-hard fan of the Penang team. I rarely missed any home matches played at the City Stadium.I can still name you the first 11 and those on the bench who won us the Premier One title in 1998, which is the equivalent of the Super League now.
My friends and I could sit on the rough surface at the open area terrace seats for three hours just to watch the Penang team in action.
On a match day, either Tuesday or Saturday, I would take a bus from Ayer Itam to get to the stadium by 7.30pm in order to get the best seat.
After paying RM6 for the ticket, I would have a combo of Ramly burger and a cup of coke for my dinner as several of us wait for the match to begin at 8.45pm.
A Penang goal would always trigger a euphoric roar from the stands.
There would also be iced water (I suspected they were carbonated drinks) raining on us as some fervent fans would toss their cup water into the air out of excitement.
You won’t get fined or punished for shouting your lungs out at the referees or players from the opposing teams with profanities.
That’s the best part of watching the game live. But the downside was, there wouldn’t be replays if you missed out on the goals scored.
Back then, our favourite player was the Great Merz – Merzagua Abderazzak, a 1994 World Cupper who played as a striker for the team.
His stature was like that of Bruno Fernandez to Manchester United now.
Whenever the Moroccan hitman played, it always gave you the belief that the Panthers would win that match, even against the top sides in the league then.
And in most instances, he would single-handedly win matches with his inspirational display which would bring out the best from those around him.
His attributes were similar to that of Norshahrul Idlan Talaha of recent times as he always mesmerised the crowds with his mazy dribbling runs.
Who could forget the winning goal he scored against Selangor at the Shah Alam Stadium that won us the Premier One title in 1998?
After receiving a long ball from his strike partner G. Shanmugam, Merzagua sprinted past two defenders before slotting the ball past the goalkeeper.
Halfway into the season, the Panthers were labelled as the surprise package for their second placing in the table.
And they just kept going, with coach Moey Yoke Ham always spot on with his tactical displays against some of the best teams in the league.
Penang also boasted the most ‘muhibbah’ line-up in those years, based on my observation.
We had Moey Kok Hong, Chee Wan Hoe, Ng Kok Heng, skipper Yoong Woon Seang and Ooi Hoe Guan. Even current national coach Tan Cheng Hoe used to play for us as right back.
Then there were Shanmugam, R. Suresh Kumar, S. Nanthakumar and Abdul Rahim Hassan, Ahmad Sobri Mohamed Faizal Abdul Halim, Zaidi Mat Ail and Domi Che Non.
We were clearly a force to be reckoned with then. When we did away with foreign players in 1999, Penang managed to attract some of the top local footballers to play for the team.
Players like Azman Adnan, V. Thinagaran and Asmawi Bakiri once plied their trade with us.
As a Penangite, I do not expect the Panthers to be instant title contenders in the top flight of Malaysian football.
The challenge here is to avoid the drop next season.
I hope that with the right people at the helm, the excitement and famed Keramat roar will
reverberate throughout the entire stadium whenever we play against the elite teams.
For now, the focus should be on the Malaysia Cup, which will kick off with the first round from Nov 6 to Nov 8.
We have won the Premier One titles twice in 1998 and 2001, and the FA Cup in 2002.
But the Malaysia Cup has proven to be elusive as the last time we lifted the cup was in 1974.
Wearing the underdog tag and with no pressure to deliver, who knows, maybe we can continue with our outstanding form and go all the way in the campaign.
Just like the 1998 league title winning team, this team was not given a ghost of a chance after finishing 7th in the competition the previous season.
But they did the unthinkable, as everything just fell into place this season. Haria Penang Haria!