Allon sinai 88.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The fact that Uri Malmilian’s coaching career has never really taken off remains a true mystery.
One of the greatest players in Israel history moved into the business of soccer training some 15 years ago, and although he has experienced nibbles of success here and there, surely he had envisioned a far better second career as a sideline prowler.
However, despite the many disappointments, in less than two weeks time the 53-year-old Hapoel Ashkelon manager can accomplish something far rarer than the annual capturing of a championship or cup.
It was just over two months ago that Ashkelon seemed destined to languish in Israeli soccer’s lower divisions for all eternity.
Only a couple of hundred fans attended its matches and the team from the South looked to have a battle on its hands just to avoid relegation to the third division.
Malmilian’s job was in real danger.
But all that is history now.
For the man who made his name as a Betar Jerusalem legend in the 1970s and ’80s has led Ashkelon on a torrid surge that has seen it climb to within two wins of a place in the Premier League, and by doing so has also resurrected an entire club and brought joy to thousands of long-suffering fans.
Ashkelon’s faithful have had precious little to cheer about through the years.
In the 1997/98 season, the club played its one and only campaign of top-flight soccer but was back struggling for its mere existence once more after suffering immediate relegation.
The 2006/07 campaign was one of mixed emotions for the club. Ashkelon reached the State Cup final for the first time in its history, only to lose to Hapoel Tel Aviv in a penalty shootout before dropping to the third division at the end of the season.
After two seasons in the Liga Artzit, Ashkelon fought its way back into the National League last summer and hired Malmilian in the hope that the man who grew up in Jerusalem’s Mamilla neighborhood would once again prove his expertise at promoting clubs to the Premier League.
Malmilian began his coaching career at Hapoel Jerusalem and quickly fueled its return to the top tier. He would go on to work his magic at Maccabi Netanya and Hakoach Amidar Ramat Gan as well, but he never managed to achieve any significant success against the country’s best clubs.
Ultimately, Malmilian earned a reputation as a
National League expert who just didn’t have what it takes to do well in the Premier League.
That was of no concern for Ashkelon, which was planning to make a run at a top-two finish, and the accompanying promotion that comes along as a prize.
However, the season got off to a bitterly disappointing start as the team won just one of its first 12 matches and found itself well adrift of the pace setters.
Malmilian, who prides himself on the fact that he has never been sacked and is always willing to offer his resignation if his team is underperforming, asked to quit on two separate occasions, but Ashkelon’s management pleaded with him to stay and his side soon hit its stride.
Four victories in five matches ensured the club no
longer had to worry itself with relegation, but that was only the appetizer. Since March 19 Ashkelon has won seven straight encounters and last Friday’s 2-1 victory at Hapoel Kfar Saba saw it leapfrog into second position in the standings.
Almost unbelievably, the side which had barely attracted several hundred fans a couple of months ago saw more than 5,000 supporters attend its recent home matches and even took a significant traveling contingent to last week’s showdown in Kfar Saba.
Malmilian’s men host Ironi Bat Yam on Friday before concluding their
season with a road match at Ness Tziona, knowing that two victories
will cap a dream season.
Malmilian is on the verge of guiding
his fourth different team to the Premier League, reviving a club which
last made the headlines when its stadium was hit by a rocket during
Operation Cast Lead in December 2008.
After he completes what
seemed to be an almost impossible mission two months ago, the
soft-spoken authoritarian will then be able to turn his attention to
the next goal – proving that he belongs with the Premier League’s best
and has the ability to coach at a big club.
Few will dispute that he deserves the chance. Allon@jpost.com