Jeonnam U-18 finished second in Group A (top split) of the recently concluded ‘2023 K League Junior’ Late Season League. Their record is noteworthy. Undefeated runners-up. After narrowly qualifying for the top split in the Electric League with three straight wins down the stretch, Jeonnam made a remarkable turnaround in the Late Season. They haven’t lost a game in 11 matches with seven wins and four draws (25 points). Unfortunately, they fell one point short of the Pohang Steelers (W26-8 D2-2 L1). They became the fifth unbeaten runners-up in the K League Youth Division.굿모닝토토
In fact, not many experts expected Jeonnam to do well. Jeonnam narrowly missed out on the top split last season, finishing in 11th place. In the past, Jeonnam has been a youth powerhouse, producing players like Ji Dong-won, Yoon Seok-young, and Kim Young-wook. After struggling like the first team in the second division, Jeonnam Youth has shown signs of rebuilding its reputation by performing above expectations this season. At the center of this is Jeonnam U-18 coach Lee Jae-hyung (47), who was appointed in January.
“Actually, I was appointed in January and went to the Baekwoongi tournament right away. I couldn’t do winter training. We barely made it to the top split in the Electric League with a last-minute winning streak, but as time went on, the amount of training increased and the relationship with the players deepened. Winning against strong teams like Suwon Samsung, Jeonbuk Hyundai, and Seongnam FC gave the players confidence. I thought they wouldn’t be able to keep up, but they gave me strength. Later on, we had four or five first-year players because we didn’t have any players, and they all did their part. I’m also grateful to CEO Lee Kwang-soo for his support,” he laughed.
In fact, Lee has no ties to Jeonnam. He was born in Seoul, graduated from Hanyang University, and played professionally in Daejeon. He came to Jeonnam with no ties to the province solely because of his skills. Lee is a recognized youth expert. He led Hanyang Middle School for 17 years. It was a given that they would reach the final in every tournament they competed in. His Hanyang Middle School was overwhelming. If he stayed put, he could have become the head coach of Hanyang Gongo and Hanyang University, but he was thirsty for new soccer and moved to a Japanese high school team. He went on to coach the Ansan Greeners first team and FC Hanyang before settling down in Jeonnam.
Lee’s impact was clear. Lee quickly transformed Jeonnam. The coaches he had worked with at Hanyang joined him and created a synergy. The coaching staff in Seoul responded to Lee’s call in one step. “My strength is that I get along well with the kids,” he says. They even tell their parents, ‘My coach, he doesn’t look like a coach,’ and he’s fun with them. Personally, I don’t like hard things. I think youth should find strength in softness.” In terms of soccer, he emphasizes a fast tempo. “We’re playing a soccer that’s fast out of the break and has a lot of numbers on the offensive end,” he said. The result was a runner-up finish this season.
Lee doesn’t plan to stay there. “A youth program under the professional umbrella has to be organized. A framework is important. I’ve been talking a lot with the teachers to create it. In fact, it was said that this year’s Jeonnam Youth was the weakest ever, but it was okay because I saw the kids following me in training. I’m thinking that if this year is this good, next year will be even better,” he said. He continued, “The youth team doesn’t care about my color. I want to make Jeonnam Youth a team that doesn’t give up and does well, not Lee Jae-hyung’s football. I want to make it our team, not a team that shines this year and gets beaten the next year.”
Lee intends to bury his bones in the youth team. And he’s going to give it his all. “Honestly, I think the pros are too much for me. I’m more confident in the youth than anyone else, and the youth can always paint a picture that I can paint. It depends on how I present it. If the opportunity to coach the national team comes, I want to stay at the youth level. I want to do what I’m good at,” he said.