Even though it will be remembered as a groundbreaking stint in the A-League, there is still a lingering sense of what might have been after Safuwan Baharudin’s enforced return to Singapore from Melbourne City.

A back injury saw the Singapore international fly home on Sunday, cutting short his loan spell from Malaysia Super League side LionsXII and ending hopes of a longer stay – just as the sister club of English champions Manchester City were preparing for the A-League finals.

This weekend, Safuwan will be watching on television as LionsXII travel to Selayang Stadium, near Kuala Lumpur, to take on Sime Darby in the MSL. His former Melbourne City teammates will fly to New Zealand for Sunday’s A-League elimination final against Wellington Phoenix.

Safuwan showed during his three months with Melbourne City that he could do a lot more than just make up the numbers in a physically tough and competitive league. In his six appearances, he scored two goals and won a man-of-the-match award, helping City achieve their highest-ever finish of fifth in the A-League regular season, albeit after third-placed Perth Glory were deemed ineligible for the finals after salary cap breaches.

“Naturally, I am disappointed,” Safuwan told ESPN FC. “As a player, you want to go as far as you can with your club, and I wanted to help Melbourne to chase for silverware. Once I received the news that I would be out for several weeks, I told myself that I cannot let myself be depressed about it.”

Safuwan injured his spine in his last match for City against Phoenix on April 12. An MRI scan revealed that a disc in his lower back touched a nerve, ruling him out for the foreseeable future. Even so, LionsXII registered the 23-year-old for the rest of the 2015 MSL season.

“I believe I have improved much as a player, both mentally and physically,” he said. “It was an eye-opening experience for me. I learnt so much about what it takes, and what is needed to be a professional, and to stay at the top of my game.”

Other players with a south-east Asian background have tried their luck in the A-League – Thai imports Surat Sukha and Sutee Suksomkit played a combined 45 matches for Melbourne Victory a few years ago – but Safuwan truly looked like he belonged and was the only one to register a goal.

More than any other A-League side, the melting pot nature of Melbourne City seemed a perfect fit. Safuwan didn’t get to play with guest striker David Villa, who left the club in December, but he did share the pitch with former Premier League stars Damien Duff and Robert Koren as well as ex-Dutch international Kew Jaliens, plus plenty of past and present Socceroos, including Josh Kennedy, Patrick Kisnorbo and Aaron Mooy.

“I think he did really well to adjust to the league and the lifestyle and being a cosmopolitan Singaporean helps this,” said Steve Darby, a former Australia-based coach and one-time assistant to Bryan Robson and Peter Reid for the Thailand national side. “Maybe Safuwan lacked the physical presence to play at that level day in and day out, but he should be proud of what he achieved.”

Safuwan showed courage as he was thrown in the deep end from the start, making his debut as a central midfielder in the Melbourne derby before a 40,000 crowd on February 7. In the following games, he happily slotted into the right and left full-back positions, as required by coach John van ‘t Schip, having played centre-back on the club’s training tour of Abu Dhabi in January.

When he scored the first of his two goals – the crucial equaliser as City came from behind to beat fancied Adelaide United on February 27 – Asian social media crackled with the good news.

“It will always be special because my parents were at the match to witness the goal,” he said. “That goal also inspired me and gave me a lot of confidence. It made me realise that I have what it takes to play at this level.”

Other imports from the region have struggled to make an impact overseas in recent months, with Thailand striker Teerasil Dangda returning to Muong Thong United in January after an unsuccessful loan spell with La Liga club, Almeria, and Malaysian whiz kid Nazmi Faiz coming home prematurely from Portuguese club SC Beira in March last year without making first team appearance. But Safuwan says he can’t wait to test himself again.

“Of course I want another shot at playing overseas. It takes you out of your comfort zone, and it pushes you to new levels. I want to realise my full potential.”

Safuwan will never forget his half a dozen games as his nation’s first-ever player in Australia’s professional league. Now it is up to him if that becomes a fading memory or the stepping stone to a serious career beyond the shores of Singapore and Malaysia.

* Former Herald journalist Jason Dasey is Singapore-based senior editor of global football website www.espnfcm 

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