The response was always destined to arrive. At some point, the change was going to made. But when news of Johor DT’s decision to hire Ulisses Morais as their new boss first broke, you could almost sense mixed reactions emerging and crawling out of the shadows.
The optimism is understandable. Holistically, JDT are still a club that’s growing on a yearly basis, but track record would suggest that they’ve been on a decline. From winning the AFC Cup in 2015 and making the semi-finals in 2016, the Southern Tigers were sent packing in the zonal semi-finals this year. Add that to the FA Cup exit and their inconsistent showing in the MSL and you’d be able to understand why Benjamin Mora was always destined for the axe. Sure, their problems go a lot deeper, but Mora’s track record didn’t do him any favours either.
He’s a foreigner who has spent a lot of time in football – precisely the sort of criteria that’s sometimes needed to quell concern amongst the club faithful. But who is he? How is he as a coach? Does he understand Malaysian football? Why did he leave Portugal after spending his entire career there?
THE VIEW FROM PORTUGAL
A quick Google search will show you that Ulisses Morais was the boss of SC Beira Mar, when Nazmi Faiz joined them back in 2012. Unfortunately, just like Nazmi, he didn’t last too long over there. But that’s the only Malaysian link in this particular story. He was a professional footballer for 20 years in Portugal, and went on to spend all of his coaching career there as well. But despite not having any big teams on his coaching CV, Morais isn’t exactly a stranger back home.
“Ulisses Morais is a well known name in Portugal mostly because he has been around for so long, not necessarily because of his achievements. He has managed several teams in the top two Portuguese tiers but this is his first time managing outside of Portugal,” Portuguese football journalist Tiago Estevao told FourthOfficial.com
“His best campaigns were with Estoril, over 10 years ago, when he won the third division and second division. His best season in the last couple of years was two years ago with Aves, where he helped them to an 8th placed finish in the second division – pretty much a safe season,” he added.
We also caught up with Ivo Leite, an ardent SC Beira Mar fan, who still remembers Nazmi Faiz’s short stint with his boyhood club, with Morais in charge of the first team. While he does acknowledge that Morais’ stint with Beira Mar wasn’t exactly a positive one, Ivo goes on to echo Tiago’s sentiments, before providing a bit more insight on what he is primarily recognised for in Portugal.
“I definitely remember Nazmi Faiz. And it’s interesting to see Ulisses Morais there now. He didn’t do too much during his time with us, but he is mainly known for picking up teams in difficult situations and making remarkable recoveries. People still talk about his stint with Estoril in the early 2000s. In just two years, Morais took them from the third tier of Portuguese football to the first tier. Safe to say that things went downhill after that, but he is still recognized for it,” Ivo explained.
“He went on to coach a number of first division teams after leaving Estoril, including the stint he had with Beira Mar, but there was nothing much to shout about. More recently though, he was in charge of Famalicao in the second division, but left in October 2016 after a poor start to the season,” he added.
WHAT CAN JOHOR DT EXPECT FROM HIM?
It can be pretty baffling. What exactly influenced his decision to leave Portugal and come all the way to Johor DT? Was it the challenge of trying something abroad? Was the possibility of winning silverware? Was it a convincing discussion with TMJ?
“This is the first time he’s managing outside of Portugal, so there are reasons to believe he could need some time to adapt. But at the end of the day, I think it’s not too difficult to understand his reasons for wanting to accept this challenge. I think the financial factor, combined with the possibility of winning titles – something he hasn’t done for a long time – could be factors that influenced his decision to sign for Johor DT,” Tiago, who regularly pens his thoughts on WhoScored.com and PortuGOAL.com, said.
The evolution at Johor DT hasn’t only been in terms of silverware and facilities they’ve built. There is a constant demand for attacking football. Fans are happy enough to shower their team with support during difficult times, but they aren’t too fond of conservative and pragmatic – something that Mora tried to implement and practice in certain games. And judging by Ivo’s description of Morais’ preferred tactical approach, there are valid reasons for fans to be excited by this appointment.
“As a person, Morais is known to be a real gentleman. He is loyal, doesn’t get himself involved in controversies and is a real dignified individual. It’s difficult to evaluate his tactical approach, because it differs with teams based on expectations and job demands. But to some extent, I can see his appreciation for the 4-3-3 formation, with a strong focus on attacking philosophies. He has a strong appetite for teams that are performing below expectation and helping them bounce back,” he added.
SHORT-TERM NEED VS LONG-TERM AMBITION
This appointment is clearly done with two things in mind. Fix the remainder of their season and gear up for a huge 2018. It’s precisely why they’ve moved swiftly to bring Mohammed Ghaddar from Kelantan, besides also pulling off the impeccable feat of signing Natxo Insa from Levante – a move that even left Tiago surprised. “Oh wow, is he really in charge of Johor? And they just got Natxo Insa too? That’s awesome,” he said, when we first got in touch with him.
The FA Cup is a foregone conclusion and they are also out of the AFC Cup. At this point, their only focus for the rest of 2017 will be the Malaysia Super League and ironically the Malaysia Cup, a tournament they’ve usually deprioritized over the last couple of years. But the lack of silverware in 2017 means they have an incentive to take the Malaysia Cup seriously this year.
Malaysia’s ranking on the AFC standings has been positive in recent months, which opens the possibility of seeing a Malaysian team earn direct qualification into the Asian Champions League in 2019. And you can bet it’s lingering on the minds of key individuals at JDT, as we speak. Their new stadium is likely to be ready by 2019 too, if updates from Johor Southern Tigers’ Facebook page are to be believed. It’s precisely why JDT need to have a strong 2018, before the bumper changes in 2019 come in.
Time is everything Morais needs right now. If Ivo’s explanations are to be taken into consideration, Morais’ preference for an attacking minded 4-3-3 formation suits JDT very well. In Ghaddar, Guerra and Hazwan, Morais has got three versatile attackers who are capable of playing anywhere across the front three. And with Safiq Rahim, Natxo Insa, Nazmi Faiz, Amirulhadi Zainal, Gonzalo Cabrera and even Afiq Fazail, there’s plenty of depth and options at Morais’ disposal, as far as midfield is concerned.
But of course, things could always go wrong. On one side you’ve got an experienced European football coach, whose tactical preference clearly fits JDT. But on the other hand, you’ve got a football coach who has never coached outside of Portugal, and probably has minimal understanding of Asian football, leave alone Malaysian football. And we all know how disastrous that can be.
But hey, football has always been about taking risks, no?