The Indian U-19 National Team heads into the AFC U-19 Championship Qualifiers on back of some encouraging performances in the FAM-FRENZ Asia Champions Trophy 2015 (ACT).
Head Coach Lee Johnson, who had been associated with the Chelsea Academy and the Crystal Palace Academy in the past, has been training with the India U-19 National Team since July 2015 although most of the boys in the 23-member squad have been training together in the AIFF Academy since May 2012.
A day prior to India’s first match in AFC U-19 Championship Qualifiers against hosts Palestine, AIFF Media caught up with Johnson on the forthcoming AFC U-19 Championship Qualifiers, the strengths of his team, his squad and much more.
What is your assessment of the Indian U-19 squad which has been training under you?
The Indian players are some of the best players I have worked with so far in terms of their discipline, work-rate and attitude – both on and off the pitch. However, we still need to improve on the tactical aspects. Our players are technically good and can handle the ball well. So for us taking part in the SAFF and ACT has provided us with an experience which will help aid their development.
How do you reflect on the Indians being clubbed with Afghanistan, UAE and Palestine in the AFC U-19 Championship Qualifiers?
The games in the AFC U-19 Qualifiers will be challenging and it will also be a good exposure campaign for the boys. We have defeated Afghanistan without our strongest team so physiologically that will be an advantage for us going into that game. At the same time you cannot underestimate the quality of the teams in our group as they possess the necessary weapons to cause problems.
Heading into the Qualifiers I want my players to enjoy their football and play with freedom and creativity whilst maintaining a good defensive discipline. It will be a great experience for everyone and I hope we can do the country proud.
How did you zero down to your squad?
Although it has been a challenge, we have tried to make the best of our resources. We split the U-19 squad into two groups which included nine U-17 players. One team went to participate in the SAFF U-19 Championship and the other started the Asian Champions Trophy 2015. The team we took to the ACT came up against some of the best clubs sides in South-East Asia where the standard has been high and it is pleasing to see the lads rise to the occasion. We have performed well in recent weeks but must remain focused concentrate on one game at a time leading in to the AFC Qualifiers.
The U-19 Team which went to the SAFF Championship finished runners-up. What do you make of it?
We were the best team in the SAFF Championship and had we capitalized on our chances, the match would not have gone into penalties. The players have to learn how to be more clinical and decisive in front of goal because these moments are the difference between winning and losing.
Nevertheless, I was pleased with how the players rose up to the challenge in an intimidating environment. This is a learning experience and it will help them in the future. High-quality matches such as the final (against Nepal) help them to develop and grow as a player.
How have your stints with Chelsea and Crystal Palace Academies helped you in India?
Working in these environments has given me great experience in the planning and preparation needed to help develop players to perform at the highest level of the youth football.
It has enabled me to implement support structures which focused on individual and team development this is a mandatory requirement for the Premier League’s “Elite Player Performance Plan”, and it’s something we have introduced with the U-19s as it helps us monitor their progress throughout the program.
As a foreign coach you have to understand the football culture of a nation, you have to understand the players and the staff. And for that you need to adapt.
(Interview & Photo courtesy: AIFF Media)