“I’m sitting in the box, [Cristiano] Ronaldo’s family’s box, next to Georgina, his wife, watching the game,” says Alistair Edwards. “And then after the game Ronaldo comes in and he invites us to his house, so you go to his house. So it’s in those times I think, ‘yeah, life has been pretty good’.”
That would seem an understatement, especially in the context of the Australian coach’s inglorious exit from Perth Glory in 2013. And in the past few years, life has indeed been pretty good.
Edwards has been almost a forgotten man in A-League Men’s coaching circles since his stint in charge of the Glory ended prematurely due to a difference in views between he and owner Tony Sage over the direction of the club.
Not that he has any regrets. He has since visited Ronaldo’s house in Turin – when the Portuguese star played for Juventus – and wines and dines with super agent Jorge Mendes in high-end Barcelona restaurants.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in all of this is not the fact Edwards enjoying such an existence, it is that he is doing so because he is the technical director of a club not in Europe but Asia.
Malaysian side Johor Darul Ta’zim, better known around the continent as JDT, is the very definition of a super club. Within the space of a decade they have transformed themselves from a state-owned, middle-of-the-road Malaysian Super League club to one of the true glamour outfits of Asian football.
Rolls Royce limousines, private jets and pre-season tours in Dubai – everything JDT does screams luxury and excess. To understand the size and scale of this new powerhouse, simply watch its recently produced anthem, Pioneers. The music video’s frontman? Snoop Dogg.
The sight of the iconic West Coast rapper in a JDT kit dropping lyrics like “I’m in it like JDT S N double O P bout to kick it on fresh grass” feels like a trick on the eyes.
But it is not, because this is JDT.
And it is all due to the vision – and let’s be honest, the money – of one man: Tunku Ismail ibni Sultan Ibrahim, the Crown Prince of Johor. Better known as TMJ, he is a man with a contact book as thick as any in world football and who counts Ronaldo as a personal friend.
TMJ had the funds and the plan, and one of the first people he tasked with executing it was Edwards, a former player of the old Johor FA team in the 1990s and something of a legend in the southern Malaysian state bordering Singapore.
Edwards was entranced by his vision and ambition, but knew Malaysian football well enough to come at it with a healthy dose of scepticism.
“Because when he talked about what he wanted to do,” Edwards says, “like dominate Malaysian football, build the best infrastructure in Asia, play in the Asian Champions League; when you’re looking at a Malaysian team, to play in the Champions League has never been done before.
“And when I was here, in the 1990s, nothing much had changed from that [time] in terms of the football. Everything was the same, the way it’s run and everything. It wasn’t really moving, but TMJ was starting to move it. So when he was explained to me what his plans were, they looked incredible.”
The club’s home ground, Larkin Stadium, was dilapidated. Soon enough it was completely refurbished, inside and out, into one of the best in Southeast Asia.
Plans were unveiled for a 40,000-seat, state-of-the-art stadium the likes of which Malaysia had not seen before, and in 2020 the Sultan Ibrahim Stadium opened.
This month the venue will host Group I of the AFC Champions League, which sees JDT pitted against continental giants Kawasaki Frontale, Ulsan Hyundai and Guangzhou Evergrande.
In their opening game on the weekend, under manager Benjamin Mora, they beat Chinese Super League side Guangzhou 5-0. On Monday night they stunned South Korea’s 2020 champions Ulsan 2-1, and sit top of the group entering Friday night’s third match against J1 League leaders Kawasaki
This stadium and this stage is where JDT, champions for eight straight seasons in Malaysia, now comfortably sit.
Edwards’s role at the club has changed over the years. Similarly to when he worked for Football Federation Australia as Joeys coach, much has centred around creating and developing the academy structures to develop a pipeline of talent – one that is showing early signs of bearing fruit.
“We set up the academy from basically scratch,” 53-year-old Edwards says. “So now we have an academy from under-12s all the way through our under-21s … it’s a proper academy in terms of the players come in at 11 years old and they live there, they go to school there, they have all the nutritionists and everything.”
“Our JDT II team, which is playing in the second division, 12 of the players in the squad are from the academy. In our first team there’s four players that are regularly training with the first team and three of them regularly playing, like Arif Aiman. [He’s] the youngest in our group [and] he’s amazing. He’s 19 years old, we plucked him up when he was 15 or 16 from the national program here, where he was playing in the second team, by the way.
“So we bought him in here and he played in our under-19 team and JDT II, and to cut a long story short he was probably our best player last year and he’s 19 years old. So that’s the kind of thing that is happening because of all the great work that TMJ has done.”
As glowing as Edwards is of TMJ, the same is true in reverse.
“He’s a legend in Johor football,” the Crown Prince says, “and has been contributing to the system for a very long time, both as a player and now technical director. Him being in the organisation inspires many young people at the club to do well.
“As technical director, he is key to our youth development programme and keeps a keen eye on our JDT academy, which has grown tremendously in recent years.”