Safuwan Baharudin prepares for Pahang but dreams of A-League return
He will join Malaysian giants Pahang for the 2018 season, but there's more than a hint that Safuwan Baharudin's eye is continuing to wander for leagues beyond Southeast Asia.
The former Melbourne City utility player will link up with former national coach Dollah Salleh in Kuantan in what many would see as a dream move.
Dollah, an attack-minded coach who has been a long-time admirer of Singapore's Safuwan, took Pahang to the FA Cup final last season, and second place in the Malaysia Super League (MSL).
Signing from second-tier PDRM, Safuwan will be playing in front of big home crowds, and easily slot into a successful side hell-bent on rivalling four-time defending champions Johor Darul Ta'zim.
Even so, 26-year-old Safuwan believes that his successful A-League stint in 2015 -- on-loan from Singapore's LionsXII -- means that a return to Australia as an AFC import will always be an option.
"Is the A-League an option for me? Definitely, my friend," Safuwan told ESPN FC. "Definitely the A-League is an option for me because I put a stamp on myself the last time I was there for almost three months.
"It was one of the best career moments that I had, playing in the A-League. I'll never forget it."
Safuwan played central midfield and full-back during his six games in the A-League, scoring goals against Adelaide United and Western Sydney, and making his debut in the Melbourne derby.
His loan spell was cut short by a nagging back injury, but Safuwan has never been visibly troubled by the problem in the two-and-a-half years since.
Soon after his A-League stint in mid-2015, he was rumoured to be on the radar of Yokohama F Marinos in the J.League, but a loan move never materialised.
Now with 75 caps under his belt, and seven goals for his country, he says he's ready to assume an influential role at Pahang, captained by Australian-born Matthew Davies, who played 16 games for Perth Glory between 2013 and 2015.
"I've always wanted to go to a state team, especially Pahang," Safuwan said.
"A few years ago, I had some contact with coach Dollah before he left for PDRM and then he got the national team job before going to [second division] Perlis. So it was tough because I really wanted to play with him.
"I'll be playing in a midfielder role [with Pahang]. I hope that I can make a big impression with Pahang and help them achieve what they used to achieve. We want to do as well as we can in the Malaysia Super League next season."
Pahang were a dominant Cup team under Dollah and Zainal Abidin Hassan, winning the 2013 Malaysia Cup and the Cup treble -- including the FA Cup and Charity Shield -- in 2014.
Despite eight goals in his debut season with PDRM in 2016, the Klang Valley-based side were relegated on the last day of their campaign.
Playing in the Malaysian second tier wasn't part of the plan, but Safuwan made the most of the situation. He became captain of the side known as the Cops because of their affiliation with Malaysia's police, and scored an impressive 11 times in just 19 league matches -- from midfield.
His eye for goal, and aerial prowess, saw national coach V. Sundramoorthy experiment with the former centre-back as a striker in June's Asian Cup qualifier against Chinese Taipei.
"When I went to PDRM, they were playing in the Super League and they were the ones who wanted me," Safuwan admitted.
"It was a pleasant two years and it was a stepping stone for me to take the next step in the Malaysia league for next season."
Having begun his professional career as a raw 17-year-old for Young Lions in the 2009 S.League, Safuwan admits that he has to pinch himself as he looks ahead to 2018. He will report to Kuantan for preseason training on Dec. 11 after he finishes a vacation in South Africa with his young family.
Apart from the prospect of a fourth AFF Suzuki Cup campaign -- he was a crucial part of the triumphant 2012 team -- Safuwan is delighted to be able to continue to ply his trade off-shore. The A-League, or J.League, may be the ultimate aim, but being at one of Malaysia's top clubs is a satisfying achievement -- for now.
"It's seven years now playing in [the Malaysia] Super League. It's an unbelievable achievement for me," he said, with a sense of pride.
Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. Formerly Asian editor of FourFourTwo, he was also a CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @JasonDasey.