KOTA KINABALU: Sabah have emerged from a team of no hopers to genuine title contenders in the Premier League challenge.
They are currently second in the 12-team standings on 25 points, six behind league leaders KL Felda United FC.
Not many had expected them to be up there challenging for the crown at this point of time after picking up merely one point from their first three games, including two home ties.
They kicked off their challenge on a modest note after being held to a scoreless draw by KL Felda United.
That was followed by two consecutive defeats – away to Selangor PKNS and at home by Harimau Muda.
The two defeats gave an impression that it was going to be yet another disappointing year for the team that have been in the country’s second tier league for a record five consecutive seasons.
However, it proved to be a temporary setback for the Gary Phillips’ side as they went on to win their next three games – defeating Armed Forces (away), Johor MP Muar (home) and Shahzan Muda (away) before the league took a three-week break.
When the league resumed, Sabah’s fine run suffered a slight knock as they went down 0-2 to Sarawak in a Borneo Derby clash – no thanks to the long break, or rather their blunt finishing.
But Sabah made a quick rebound though as they won their next battle defeating Penang USM FC 2-0 at home.
From then on, there was no looking back for the Gary Phillips’ boys as they stretched their winning run to five in a row.
Their latest victory was the back-to-back wins over Police.
And now they are in a good position not only to fight for Super League promotion but also the Premier League crown.
And skipper Mohd Reithudin Ag Emran is calling on his team-mates not to waste the opportunity, but to fight their hearts out for glory.
“We are in a good position, but it is still a long way to go. Anything can happen in the next 10 matches, so it is important for us to keep working and improving,” the defender said.
“But I believe that this is going to be an interesting season for us, and as long as we can stay united and play as a team, I’m quite convinced we will have a good season.
“The way I see it, this team are getting better and better, and I hope I’m right because at the end of the day, it’s the end result that counts.
“The team have improved a lot under our new coach (Gary) and we are slowly adapting to the system he is implementing.
“We keep learning new things from him, and I firmly believe that given time, we will achieve something with this coach sooner rather than later.
“But I have a feeling that we will achieve something this season because when you look at the squad, we have the right attitude with some sort of a winning atmosphere in the team.
“Furthermore, everyone is fighting for a place for the first team or at least the first 16 or 18. This is good because it keeps you working hard all the time, be it in training or during matches. So this will eventually eradicate complacency among the players.
Sabah’s title credentials will be put to a real test on Monday when they take on KL Felda United on the road.
And Reithudin wants his team-mates to have the belief that this trip is not mission impossible, but something that they can accomplish.
“It is important for us to have the belief that we can go all the way. It is going to be a massive game, but we must face it with lots of confidence and determination.
“This is going to be an interesting tie and an important one too. Winning this one will give us a big boost ahead of our second big game of the week against Selangor PKNS (third placed),” said Reithudin.
Sabah are facing a defining moment in their challenge by taking on the top sides in the league.
After the two massive games against Felda and PKNS, they will face fifth placed Harimau Muda followed by the date with fourth placed Armed Forces.