As part of our Brits Abroad series, former England striker Tony Cottee discusses his season of frustration spent playing for Selangor in Malaysia.
At the age of 31, Tony Cottee was a West Ham legend having scored 145 goals for the club. But with his chances at Upton Park limited, the England international striker made a surprise move to Malaysia in 1996 to play for Selangor. Cottee would return to England less than a year later with Leicester City, finally winning a major trophy in England as the Foxes lifted the League Cup in 2000. But in the meantime there was trophy success in Asia and an experience he will never forget. Adam Bate caught up with Cottee to find out more...
How did the move to Malaysia come about?
If you go back to when I went back to West Ham for my second spell, I had two good seasons back at the club. I was top scorer both years. Then at the start of the third season I think it's fair to say that Harry Redknapp was experimenting in the transfer market. He brought in quite a lot of foreign players, albeit really good ones, and I then made the mistake of getting injured in pre-season which certainly didn't help my cause. By the time I got back to fitness, I was around fifth or sixth choice striker.
Throughout my career I'd always wanted to play football. I was 31 and I didn't really have time on my side so I didn't want to be sitting on the bench warming that up. Even though West Ham was my club and I didn't want to leave, I just wanted to play. Unfortunately, no-one came in for me to be honest with you. I was a bit disappointed because, like I say, I'd been top scorer for the two previous seasons but there didn't seem to be much interest. Then all of a sudden the Malaysia offer came in.
It must have been a big decision?
It was a massive decision for me. I'd never really thought about playing abroad. The only time I'd considered it was during my West Ham glory days when there was apparently interest from Fiorentina in Italy. They were the only club I'd ever been linked with. Then this offer came from Malaysia. Obviously, this wasn't a couple of hours away in Spain. This was a 14 hour flight away. So it was a complete change of lifestyle and huge decision to make.
I was on decent money at the time as I'd had a couple of moves - from West Ham to Everton and then back to West Ham - but I wasn't on anything like what the players would be earning nowadays, even taking into account inflation. So for me to get what turned out to be a tax-free offer was a real carrot to be dangled. So I thought that with my career in England seemingly over I might as well make some money and go and have a new experience.
And it was a big move for Malaysian football...
It was a huge deal at the time. I think the most that had been paid for a player in Malaysia before my arrival was £100,000 for Dave Mitchell, the old Rangers player. All of a sudden they were paying £750,000 for me which was an absolute fortune given that there wasn't much money in Malaysian football.
So there was a lot of focus on me and when I arrived at the airport there was a big hoo-ha and a press conference. The man who had behind the deal was a guy called Dato Aini, who was a local politician as well. He enjoyed the publicity and made the most of everything that went with it. There was lots of coverage in the newspapers and on TV but it wasn't anything I couldn't deal with because I'd had the move to Everton when I became the record transfer in English football. That was on a far greater scale but yeah there was significant interest in the transfer.
So what were your initial impressions when you got out there?
It was a complete and utter culture shock. I was brought up in a non-religious background and now found myself in what was a predominantly Muslim country. It was very religious and I couldn't really get my head around what was going on from a religious point of view.
In terms of the football, it was completely different. Malaysia had a lot of illegal gambling and syndicate betting so there were all sorts of things going on. There had been a lot of scandals and they were trying to rebuild the league.
The facilities at Selangor were good. The main stadium was fantastic - 80,000 all-seater - and to be fair the training ground was OK so it wasn't much of an issue. But it was just completely different to what I'd been used to and brought up with at West Ham.
My biggest problem when I was out there was the weather. It was just so hot. Most people are lucky enough to have been to Florida these days so when I meet people who ask about Malaysia I always say, 'Have you been to Florida? Well, imagine it like that but 10 degrees hotter.' And I had to play football too not just walk around and eat a choc ice!
What about the standard of football? You made the press back home when you complained about mushrooms on the pitch...
That just annoyed me more than anything. There was a mushroom on the pitch and everyone walked around it so I just kicked the bloody thing off! It was just amateurish really. That's the way to describe it. Obviously they were playing catch-up compared to Europe and even though there'd been a league for some time, it was in its infancy really from a professional point of view.
There were many things that annoyed me, from the approach of the players to the quality of refereeing in comparison to England. These things very quickly began to get on my nerves very soon after I arrived in Malaysia.
You did win the Malaysian FA Cup...
Their FA Cup was the equivalent of their League Cup, really. It was nice to win that. It was my first medal that I'd won in my career! It was pleasing to win that but it just didn't feel the same. It wasn't like when I won the League Cup with Leicester in 2000. I'd won a medal but it just didn't have the glamour and the glory attached to it that it would have done if it'd been an English medal. Maybe that's just me. I suppose for a Malaysian person it would have meant the world to them.
How about off the field?
In general, my family really enjoyed it. My daughter went to school there and it was a good time. It was just the football that didn't work out really. The rest of it I really enjoyed.
But it was an easy decision to come back to England?
It was. My then wife fell pregnant when I was out in Malaysia. She went home and so I had six weeks out there alone. I think it was the longest six weeks of my life. To be honest, it was a convenient excuse to get out of Malaysia as I could say that my wife was pregnant and I was home sick. It was true so it wasn't a lie. But it was a chance to get back home where I wanted to be. The problem I had is that nobody had wanted me before I had gone out to Malaysia so why would anybody wanted me when I came back?! That's the reality I was facing up.
You got the chance with Leicester. Was it tough to adjust back to English football?
Yeah, it really was. That period in the late 90s, the wages were starting to explode and football was really getting bigger again. David Beckham had arrived on the scene, Michael Owen had arrived on the scene and I think the interest was starting to build up again in football. There was a big publicity drive surrounding football and it was in the spotlight.
I'd only been away for a year but when I came back to it there seemed to be more pressure and more on the games. My problem was that I just wasn't fit. I was Malaysian fit but I wasn't English fit and they are two completely different things.
I took six months before I actually started a league game under Martin O'Neill. He was aware that I wasn't fit and I had to work extremely hard before I got anywhere near the first team. We had our run-ins me and Martin and fell out a few times. But we patched it up and once I started scoring he kept me in the team and we ended up having a great relationship.
So do you have any regrets going out to Malaysia?
I've got to say that I wouldn't change my decision for the world. From a football point of view it was hugely disappointing and I don't look back with any fond football memories but from a lifestyle point of view I look back on it as a great experience and a wonderful opportunity to live abroad.
You can always use hindsight to say it was the wrong decision but at the time I didn't have a lot of options. Yes I would have liked it to work out differently, but it opened my eyes culturally. I didn't know what the world was about too much. Most footballers are wrapped in a blanket. You travel around the world and don't really know what it's all about. It certainly opened my eyes from that point of view.
And you still go back there to do media work...
I got called just before the 2010 World Cup to do some pundit work, similar to what I do for Sky. I really enjoyed that. I then went back in 2011 to do some Premier League games. Then I did Euro 2012 which was great and I have just come back this summer after doing the Confederations Cup. So I've been to Malaysia for the last four years. It was only 16 years ago I was there as a player but it's amazing the transformation that's going on over there in terms of infrastructure.
And these opportunities wouldn't have come up if you hadn't made that move...
Not at all. There is no way in a million years that I would even have been considered. It's great. I go down there and the people look after me. The caption comes up, 'Tony Cottee: Selangor and England' - and nobody can ever take that away from me. Anyone who is watching will either remember me as a player or say, 'Oh, he played for Selangor so I'm willing to listen to him' so it does work in my favour. I'm really enjoying it and none of that would have been possible without me going to play out there all those years ago.