Lost in the annals of football history is a little-known tale of PKNK’s trail-blazing foray into the Asian Club Championship at a time when few Malaysian teams found continental competitions appealing.
The team owned by the Kedah State Development Corporation became the first Malaysian club side, i.e non-state team, to play in the Asian tournament when they made their debut in the 1992-93 edition against Brunei’s Kota Ranger in the first round.
A severely-depleted PKNK lost 6-2 on aggregate but their players were among the few Malaysians to get a taste of international club football, often shunned by state teams more intent on battling for domestic glory.
While the money-spinning AFC Champions League is all the rage across the continent now, Malaysian teams used to give short-shrift to its forerunner, the Asian Club Championship, despite the fact that they tended to do well when they took it seriously.
After all, Selangor reached the inaugural final in 1967 and after a long hiatus through the 1970s, Pahang and Kuala Lumpur made it to the semi-final group phase in the 1980s.
But in the 1990s, the tournament fell out of favour with Malaysian state teams, who were pre-occupied with domestic concerns following the launch of the Semi-Pro League and then the fully-professional M-League.
This led the Football Association of Malaysia to nominate club teams to play against Asia’s best, paving the way for PKNK to make local football history.
As reigning FAM Cup champions, PKNK represented the country in the 1992-93 Asian Club Championship and became the first amateur club side from Malaysia to play in the competition.
But that history-making honour could have gone to Kuala Lumpur City Hall, or Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur (DBKL) in 1991 instead had they not decided to concede a walkover to Port Authority of Thailand in the first round.
Most of City Hall’s players come from the Kuala Lumpur Semi-Pro team, who due to their hectic schedule were unable to release the players, thus City Hall were unable to form a side strong enough to face the Thais.
PKNK’s campaign, however, was bittersweet as the joy of playing international club football was tempered by the realisation that they were a much weakened team owing to FAM’s ban on state players appearing for club sides.
That meant PKNK had to do without goalkeeper Ahmad Sobri Ismail, midfielder Radhi Mat Din and striker Norazam Ishak as well as promising young twins Farouk and Feriza Ismail, V. Thinagaran and Khattul Anuar Hamid.
Coached by former Kedah player P. Balakrishnan, these players were instrumental in PKNK winning the FAM Cup in March 1992 when Abdul Malik Yusof scored twice in the final for a 2-1 extra-time win over Penang’s Intel in Alor Star.
Two months later, PKNK played in a qualifying tournament for the National Club League which FAM were to launch in 1993, and earned a place in Division One before making their Asian club debut on 28 August 1992.
They held Kota Ranger 1-1 in Alor Star with Affandi Ghazali scoring for the hosts before Sahari Timbang grabbed an equaliser for the visitors, who had the services of several Brunei Semi-Pro players. The return match in Bandar Sri Begawan a week later ended in a chastening 5-1 defeat for PKNK.
So obscure were these matches, that an Internet search brought up nothing and they were not even listed in statistician Dirk Karsdorp’s book The AFC Champions League: A Statistical Record 1967-2007.
Even before starting the FAM Cup campaign, PKNK lost centreback Lee Kin Hong, defender and current national coach Tan Cheng Hoe and striker Aziz Azizan as they were contracted to Kedah’s Semi-Pro side and the loss of all their remaining state players proved to be too high a hurdle to overcome.
Despite the defeat, former Kedah youth player Malik said the players were excited to play in the Asian championship with most never having even travelled out of the country.
“The Asian Club Championship was a much-higher level of football than we were used to playing in local tournaments. It was a step up for all of us in the squad especially with the Semi-Pro players unable to play,” said Malik, who scored five goals in PKNK’s run to the 1992 FAM Cup title.
“But it was an exciting experience for us. We were young and did not know what to expect. We just went there to play without thinking much.”
That was a by-gone era when club sides strengthened by state players routinely drew large crowds to their games, evidenced by the 20,000 turnout for PKNK’s final victory over Intel at the Darulaman Stadium as they added to their first FAM Cup title in 1989.
“The FAM Cup used to be played in the off-season so state players could turn out for the clubs which made the games very competitive,” said Malik, who helped Kedah finish runners-up in the 1987 Razak Cup, an Under-19 inter-state tournament.
“PKNK offered employment to the state players which was why we were such a strong team. But once the state players were barred from playing for club teams, things were never the same again.”
While the National Club League, also called the Amateur League, never captured the public’s imagination, it did witness the rise of the PKENJ, the team belonging to the Johor State Economic Development Corporation.
PKENJ won the FAM Cup in 1994 and 1995 before becoming the second Malaysian club side to play in the Asian Club Championship in 1996-97.
Renamed Johor FC, they reached the second round after beating Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City Police 2-1 on aggregate in the first round before being ousted by Yokohama Marinos 3-1 on aggregate having held the Japanese giants 1-1 at home.
Another club side, Melaka Telekom played in the 1997-98 Asian Cup Winners’ Cup when they lost to the Royal Thai Air Force 2-1 on aggregate in the first round.
Johor FC played in the 2009 AFC Cup before returning as Johor Darul Ta’zim under new ownership to make their own history in Asian club football by winning the AFC Cup in 2015 and creating waves in the Champions League.
Felda United also had a spell in the AFC Cup in 2017.