Tue. Oct 3rd, 2023

Nicknamed 스포츠토토‘K-Mourinho’, Gwangju FC coach Lee Jung-hyo is a daily struggle. He has to fight with senior managers. In the process, misunderstandings arise and he is sometimes hated.

However, he has nothing to lose as an underdog, both as a team and a coach. He is a ‘story maker’ in the quiet, controversy-free K League. He may be disliked by some fans, but it’s clear that he is growing as a leader.

Recently, he got into a ‘manner ball argument’ with Gangwon FC coach Yoon Jeong-hwan. Whatever the case may be, Lee is united in his determination to fight against external enemies who want to disrupt the atmosphere in Gwangju, at least as long as he is in charge of the team.

Lee Jung-hyo’s language is rope riding

Lee bears a striking resemblance to his former coach, Jeju United’s Nam Ki-il. Nam also had a secret battle with his senior coach. Nam also came from a civic club in Gwangju to a corporate club in Jeju United, with a slightly different personality than the 100% outgoing coach.

On the other side of the spectrum, we have the former Jeonbuk Hyundai coach Choi Kang-hee (currently the head coach of Shandong Taishan in China). Choi’s tongue-in-cheek clubhouse singing to the media after taking over the reins in mid-2005, and his struggles with the reality of living in Hyundai employees’ quarters in Bongdong-eup, Wanju-gun, North Jeolla Province, are reflected in his uncharacteristically tongue-in-cheek banter with other club managers.

One official who knows Lee well shared an anecdote. “It was during Lee’s active career (Busan I-Park). When he saw player A lying down in the clubhouse sick, he said, ‘Get up and go to training. When no one could speak and they were about to go to training, Lee said to the then-manager, ‘My teammate is sick, so please let him rest. I’ll train twice as hard for you,'” he said.

The coach was embarrassed, but when Lee showed his concern for his teammate, he shortened the time and finished training. In the scheduled match, Busan won three points. Lee’s bold (?) words made the whole team feel comfortable.

He is honest with his players. Uhm Ji Sung started against Suwon FC on the 22nd. He had just been dropped from the roster for the Hangzhou Asian Games, but Lee tried to get him in the right frame of mind.

His appearance against Suwon FC was made possible by a meeting with Lee after he skipped the previous round against Daegu FC. He decided that Uhm was not feeling well, so he met with him for nearly 30 minutes to give him a legitimate reason for his absence.

“We communicated enough, and when I asked him if he had anything to say to me at the end, he said a lot, so I said, ‘I’m trying to do too well, and I’m so engrossed in myself that I unintentionally speak a little strongly. You’re also trying to do too well on the pitch, so you don’t see your surroundings,'” said Lee, who used his own situation to motivate him.

Who doesn’t love a coach who protects his players by crossing himself in front of them, even if he is hated by the other team? He knows this, but he still speaks his mind. “Some people might say I’m a bit of a prick,” he says, “and I say whatever comes to mind, in a bad way, and sometimes I say it with intent, but I think of it as a tightrope walk.

“People on a tightrope are very focused on not falling off, so I don’t look around, I say something and I hold on, and if it doesn’t pay off tenfold, twentyfold, thirtyfold, I’m going to get criticised, so I’m trying not to,” Lee said, explaining that it’s a result of focus and concentration.

Of course, you have to respect your opponent. It’s in the spirit of the sport to be fair and respectful. “I don’t know what it means to respect an opponent for something that happened during a game in sports,” he said, “and if you look at the K League 1 this year, there have been three coaches already. In this respect, my team is important, and I don’t think I have time to think about others. I am busy focusing on the recognition of my players and their growth and development. I am responsible for all the results, and I think I only need to be supported by my players and our fans,” he said, looking at it from the perspective of a promoted team.

Lee Jung-hyo used to work as an assistant coach for Jeju United head coach Nam Ki-il (pictured top centre). Although he has a similar coaching style to Nam, there is a difference in the way he speaks. Lee Jung-hyo has a distinct personality. ⓒKorea Professional Football Association

Lee Jung-hyo used to work as a coach under Nam Ki-il (top centre) of Jeju United. His coaching style is similar to Nam’s, but there is a difference in the way he speaks. Lee Jung-hyo has a distinct personality. ⓒKorea Professional Football Association

Lee Jung-hyo used to work as a coach under Nam Ki-il (top centre) of Jeju United. His coaching style is similar to Nam’s, but there is a difference in the way he speaks. Lee Jung-hyo has a distinct personality. ⓒKorea Professional Football Association

Lee Jung-hyo used to work as a coach under Nam Ki-il (top centre) of Jeju United. His coaching style is similar to Nam’s, but there is a difference in the way he speaks. Lee Jung-hyo has a distinct personality. ⓒKorean Football Association

He doesn’t care about what others think of him… Behind the scenes is the harsh reality of Gwangju

Lee is not obsessed with being judged by others. Over the course of the season, he has been the subject of controversy for saying “that kind of football” to FC Seoul and has had his head down. However, I also knew that the opponent had a psychological advantage, and that Gwangju was running out of energy and it was difficult to move forward, so I took a bold step. When he takes on another team, he has the same attitude of going all out for them.

“I don’t want to be a coach (with a good heart), I don’t want to be liked, I just want to be a competent person. Instead, my players respect me and so do the fans, and I can see in them, ‘I will fight to the death (on the pitch) for my coach,'” he said, hiding his trust in his pupils.

With Uhm Ji Sung and Heo Yul out, midfielder Jung Ho Yeon was the only other player to make the Asian Games squad. I spoke to him and asked him about it. “He said, ‘I love your style,’ and I asked him about it because he was criticised, and he said, ‘I think you’re really cool,’ and he said, ‘I think you’re really cool,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, we just need our players to think that way,'” he said, adding that there was no point in looking at it and that he would continue to attack head-on.

He wants to give his players plenty of opportunities. Uhm Ji-sung has been consistently linked with a move to Celtic by foreign media in recent days. Former Gangwon FC player Yang Hyun-joon signed a five-year contract with Celtic on the 24th, so even if it doesn’t happen for the time being, it’s a resource that could still go to Europe.

Coach Lee Jung-hyo remains calm with Heo Yul (top), Jung Ho-yeon (centre) and Um Ji Sung (bottom). ⓒKorean Football Association

Heo Yul (top), Chung Ho-yeon (centre) and Um Ji-sung (bottom) are calm and collected. ⓒKorean Professional Football Association

Heo Yul (top), Jung Ho-yeon (centre) and Uhm Ji-sung (bottom) were also kept in check by coach Lee Jung-hyo. ⓒKorean Football Association

Lee was clear. He said, “I said the same thing in the meeting with (Uhm) Jisung, ‘If you’re not good enough to go to Europe, I’ll let you go. If the team that wants you still wants you, we can let you go because your value has increased. If you go to Europe for a cheap price, as they say, you’re bound to come back. I told the CEO, too, that we’ll let you go if we get a transfer fee like (Yang) Hyun-joon’s, but I told him he’s not good enough to go yet, and that’s the same with Jung Ho-yeon. If he does well at the Asian Games and is valued afterwards, he’ll go, but he’s still a long way off,” he said firmly.

This is a coach who never looks down. With a 1-0 win over Suwon FC, the team went into the friendly break with 34 points and a fifth-place finish. Of course, with only four points separating them from ninth-placed Jeju United (30), that could change at any moment. Daejeon Hana Citizen coach Lee Min-sung is in what he calls “muddy waters”. With no clubhouse to call their own, training indoors and lacking in tactical maturity, Lee is finding other ways to get the job done.

Behind the coach’s desperate words and the way he speaks his language through the media, it can also be seen as a ventilation of the environment in Gwangju, which still lacks proper training facilities. You need to be known. As a coach, he has learnt the hard way that if you don’t have a presence, you won’t be heard.

“I tell them to look ahead, don’t look behind, look ahead, because we have a target number of wins, and we’re on track,” he says, vowing to do everything in his power to not only survive but to make it to the Final A (1-6).

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