K리그1・2의 최신 소식을 모두 확인 할 수 있는 공간입니다.

Interview: Nam Ki-il on Jeju United's 2021 season

league 2021.03.01   I   조회수 390

The 2020 season was arguably the best in Jeju United's history as they won a first league title for the organization since 1989, and the first since moving to the island in 2006. The appointment as manager of Nam Ki-il just one month following the conclusion of the 2019 campaign was the first step in steering the club back in the right direction. Things have changed considerably since then as the islanders prepare for their return to the top flight this year.
Nam Ki-il has been considered one of the finer managers in Korean football for the past several years. He previously led both Gwangju FC and Seongnam FC to promotion, the former for the 2015 season and the latter for the 2019 season. With Jeju having been relegated for the first time in club history, it seemed he was the right man for the job when he assumed his responsibilities in December just over a year ago.

The Islanders finished the K League 2 campaign on a tear, going unbeaten from the beginning of August until the end of the season. They clinched at home in style at the beginning of November and won the league by a six point margin. Looking ahead to the new campaign, the focus is not necessarily on preparation, but process according to the manager:

"Our achievement of promotion to K League 1 was not the end goal. It was merely a part of the process for our long term plan. Our ultimate goal is to be at the top of K League 1. That’s why we cannot separate last season from this season when you’re assessing our team as a whole. We’re in the process of consolidating our tactics and strategies, whilst encouraging growth for our players individually," he began.

[READ: 2021 Hana 1Q K League 1 Guide]

The fact that the process has been working thus far is evident in the fact that the captaincies for the coming campaign remain unchanged, as Lee Chang-min will wear the armband once again, with Kwon Han-jin and Ahn Hyun-beom serving as his assistants. This sort of continuity will be crucial to the islanders' success as the season progresses.

Nam rates them very highly, owing mostly to their unique set of characteristics:

"[Lee] Chang-min is rated highly by his teammates. He’s respectful towards the veteran players and leads by example for our young players. He has an outstanding sense of responsibility, and he’s always active in engaging in dialogue with the coaching staff," Nam says admirably of his leading man.

Kwon Han-jin is the most senior player in the squad. His career began back in 2011 in Japan, where he played for Kashiwa Reysol, Shonan Bellmare, Thespakusatsu Gunma, and Roasso Kumamoto before joining Jeju United in 2016. No other player in the current squad has been with the club longer. His senior presence has considerable influence:

"[Kwon] Han-jin is our oldest player and has been playing in the K League longer than any of our players. He doesn’t mind the hassle of doing the dirty work behind the team and he has a strong mindset that allows him to lead the team by example," the Nam says of the veteran.

[READ: 2021 Hana 1Q K League 1 Season Preview]

Ahn Hyun-beom was the 2016 K League Rookie of the Year and his career has come quite a ways since. He was a large part of Jeju's success in their run to the title last season:

"[Ahn] Hyun-beom has such an active personality and he gets along so well with young players. He also takes care of them really well.

"I appointed these players as our captains because they provide diversity in terms of age and personality," Nam concluded.

Last year proved to be very special for the Islanders as they enjoyed some of their best football and came together as a group, a deciding factor in the final outcome to the campaign. Two factors, in particular, stood out:

"I can say that resilience amongst the players, and communication between players, the coaching staff, and the club were the main factors. These are the components that united our team," he assessed.

Jeju face a considerable task to open the season, as they first travel away to Seongnam FC, then play back-to-back home matches against Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Pohang Steelers before heading out on the road again for fixtures against Daegu FC and Ulsan Hyundai. Despite a seemingly daunting opening to their schedule, the manager is not too concerned about his approach to the opening matches:

"Before the start of last season, I set a short term goal, which eventually put us under an excessive burden. We aimed to at least win four and draw one in our first five games. In the end, the result in our first three games was one draw and two losses, which was a big failure. I realized that football never works in the way you planned it to, so for this season, I didn’t set a short term goal for the start of the season," he said.

A positive atmosphere is conducive to success and it played a major role in why the club achieved its goals in 2020, but it didn't look so at first:

"I wouldn’t say that our culture as a team changed entirely, but the atmosphere in and around the squad has changed. When I first arrived, it almost seemed like our players didn’t know how to smile, and there was a depressing feeling all around. I jokingly asked myself if I had made the right decision to come here,” he remarked with a chuckle.

"I made an effort to relieve that sort of atmosphere. I played with our team in training and started to put a smile on my face first. We also played games to hit the crossbar, and whenever I won, I exaggerated my celebrations to make the players laugh. To help our guys laugh and have fun, I needed to put a smile on my face first. I also spoke to each player individually and helped them drive up their confidence to grow further. I made sure to let everyone know that they have the qualities to grow as players. I think that’s what helped us to create the change we needed to produce the results on the pitch," he said.

[READ: K League OTT Platform Launched for Overseas Fans]

With all the success they achieved as a group, one player, in particular, spurned their change in fortune from the previous year. The return of Jung Woon played a key part in the team getting the results they did, owing not only to his leadership on the pitch, but also his ability to quickly adapt to the needs of the squad:

"Our back three has been solidified. He had only been playing as a left-back, but I gave him a place to play as a part of our back three with three centre backs. He is an intelligent player by nature, so tactically, he performed his role well. It helps the left side of our back three a lot when we have a left-footed centre back in that position. As our backline stabilized, a player like Jung Woo-jae, who plays in the same line as Jung Woon, was given more license to join the attack from defense. Jung Woon was the catalyst behind our defense, which conceded the fewest goals in the league."

Branko Belan

K League United columnist

With translation from Steve Han of Goal Korea