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Interview: Incheon United's Connor Chapman

After escaping relegation on the final day of the 2016 season win to 1-0 win over Suwon FC, a result which culminated a run of one defeat in ten, Incheon United manager Lee Kihyung went about rebuilding his squad over the winter break. The winter transfer window proved to be an extremely busy one for many clubs, the Neroazzurre being no exception with no fewer than nineteen senior players arriving and just as many leaving. All four of Incheon's current foreign quota arrived this past winter, including 22-year-old Australian defender Connor Chapman, who signed from Melbourne City on a two-year contract.
(Image courtesy of incheonutd.com)

At over six feet, Chapman is an imposing presence. And with experience in Australia's under-17, under-20, and under-23 national teams, he certainly has the pedigree to go on and emulate others whom have gone before him; Alex Wilkinson and Robert Cornthwaite fellow Australians who enjoyed successful spells in the K-League.

Three months into Chapman's two year stay in Korea, and less than a third into the 2017 season, K League United's Ryan Walters, Matthew Binns and Paul Neat caught up with the latest Australian to make the switch from A-League to K-League in an exclusive interview:

What did you know about K League before you came over? What is the view of K League in Australia?

I think it is a very hard working league. I think obviously they [Korean teams] have done very well in the Asian Champions League before, they have beaten Australian teams before. Obviously, it’s a different league from the A-League but I think a lot of Australians have come here and some have done well, some haven’t, but I have spoken to some of them and they all had great things to say about it. I have enjoyed it.

What would you say are some of the biggest differences between A-League and K-League?

Probably, I think here the major thing is that they are hard working and that everything revolves around that. They are technically very good, I think the actual level of Korean players technically is higher than Australian players but at the same time, having said that, the A-League is at a very good level. The leagues are at different levels but as a foreigner it is about adapting to Korean style of football.

What do you think then has made the Korean player pool a bit more technically sound?

I think it comes down to grassroots. I don’t know personally, by my guess is that they have worked a lot more at grassroots. The level is a lot higher with the younger players coming through who are sort of ready to jump up. Most Korean teams play very similar football and I think all Koreans know that style, as well. For me , it’s a great league to play in and I am enjoying my time.

There are a lot of Australian players making the move now, a lot of that is now because of the Asian Quota in the ACL, being the plus one player, but is there something beyond that? Have there been a lot of conversations in the locker room about coming up to Korea?

I think, for me, it is something new. It is a very respected league in Asia and a lot of that comes down to the Asian Champions League, they [Korean teams] do very well in the Champions League, and people respect that. I think the A-League, the J-League and the K-League are the top three with obviously the Chinese Super League is probably first or second now but the K League, because of their recent ACL history, it is getting a lot of respect, and a lot of respect from Australia and Australians.

Are there any current A-League players that you’d like to see join you and come up here?

That’s up to them, isn’t it? But, I think there are a lot of very good players in Australia and naturally the move is to go to Europe and go to the lower leagues in Europe . But now, in Asia the standards are getting higher and higher and higher, and instead of some players going to Europe and getting lost, I think coming to Asia because football is sort of moving to Asia, for those players it is a great opportunity. I think for me personally, the attributes that the K League are very strong at was something that I have worked on now and I think, going back to Australia, it would be a major thing for my game moving forward.

What are those main attributes that you have worked on and that you have seen in K League?

I think the main thing is heading, it is a major thing for my position. I think in Australia I don’t think it’s worked on as much and I think over the sort of last five years in Australia, we have got this sort of European style of football with the Dutch coming in and the tactics being very good where it’s about playing a brand of football and nice football. I think here is a little bit more direct, but at the same time, as I said, players that are technically very good and they’ve got foreigners that are very good, it is a very good league.

Promotion and relegation, it’s early in the season but right now Incheon are dealing with that as a team, survived last year with a really great run, that’s not in A-League though. How much do you think that adds for a players’ mentality?

I think it’s massive, I think obviously it is a major thing for the clubs in staying up and with TV rights etc, you see it in Europe, I think people in Australia want that as well but it comes down to the governing body to introduce it without causing harm to the clubs they already have in the league. I think it is something that, in the next five or ten years, we will have in Australia and it is something that the clubs have asked for. I think it will definitely come.

Did that play into the decision to come here, does it add a competitiveness? 

Yeah, I think it is a great thing to have as well because it is about winning, isn’t it? For me, as a young player it is about winning and when you are winning, to be able to hold onto games and win games. For me personally, it is great to be able to learn and for my career to build. When I am an experienced defender, the team will be able to rely on me to be able to do that.

Whilst at Melbourne City you had the pleasure of playing with both Erik Paartalu and Alex Wilkinson, both had had very different experiences in the K League, what kind of suggestions and advice had they given you before you decided to move here?

I think, obviously with Robert Cornthwaite having been here too who is with my agent, he wrote five points to me. The major thing was to adapt to the culture and my agent always said that too - be patient with the football because once you adapt to the culture then it will all come. I think moving to a new country and something that's in some ways completely different to what we're used to back home, is adapting to the culture and adapting in a football aspect.

When you signed there was an article with the club where you were seen as the "new hero" and the "last piece of the puzzle" ahead of what Incheon hoped would be a successful season, has that put any extra pressure on you to perform?

Not really. I think every player has pressure and going into every game there's pressure. I think it's a lot easier for a foreigner here because you don't actually read the papers or the media or anything so it is never really in your head; you're there to do a job. I think for me, coming here, I have really enjoyed my time at Incheon. It's a great club, we've not had the best results so far, we got our first win so hopefully we can move up the table.

You also said that another reason for this move was because that you want to get into the Socceroos squad, was the move something you felt that you had to do to achieve that?

I think being overseas doesn't guarantee that you're going to make it into the Socceroos but it puts you into a different sort of pool than being in the A-League. I think that being in Asia, the Socceroos qualify [for the World Cup] through Asia, and in a country in Korea that are always successful in that, I think if I prove myself here and prove myself in the A-League then I can make that step to the Socceroos.

How did the move to Incheon specifically come about, were there any other Korean teams interested in you at the time? What sold Incheon to you?

There were probably one or two other Korean teams interested. I was still under contract at Melbourne City and they were very accommodating to my position of where I felt I wanted my career to go. Obviously, thank-you to them for coming around, they were a bit reluctant at first. Incheon I think is a major city in Korea, it is a big club with a big fan base and that was attractive to me.

You mentioned earlier there that you finally got your first win of the season, surely now the mood in the dressing room must have been given a much-needed lift?

Yeah for sure. There were games where we deserved to win or to get something out of the game and we didn't and I think we were unfortunate, there were a few referee calls that went against us. I think against Seoul there were two goals that were goals but we didn't get. All these things can change games but.we got our first win and it's a massive boost and it gives confidence to everyone in the team and hopefully with that, individually and as a team, we can step up sort of like Jeonnam did when they first got their win and go on a run.

So you felt that the team were playing well enough but just didn't quite get that little bit of luck?

I think in most games, there was probably two games that were didn't deserve to win, but I think most games we were sort of there or there abouts and they could've gone either way. We've had chances but the other teams have taken their chances and won. I think our team is a very good team, I think moving forward we will, for me personally, hopefully get out of that relegation race and move up the table.

It's quite a young team at Incheon, with an average age of around 25, the club captain is Kim Dongseok, but who else are the leaders in and around the dressing room? You've captained Australia youth teams, do you feel that even though you're new foreign player, that there's a certain level of responsibility? 

You've got Lee Yunpyo who is one of the oldest Korean players, I think he is a major factor and then you have some of the other players too. Of course [I feel a sense of responsibility], I think hopefully by coming in the defense has tightened up a bit in the last few games I played and hopefully we can use that to build on and get some wins as well.

How has the manager been when things weren't quite going your way? 

I think he's been very good. I think he's a sort of a modern coach and he knows his tactics very well and he has been very good about it. He has always had confidence in us and has made sure that the group was happy even though we were losing and to make sure that we weren't getting down about it. The first win was a credit to him as well and hopefully we can do it for him and the team and the fans.

How does he compare to some of the mangers you have worked with before?

He's very good, he's approachable, he played in New Zealand so he realises the cultural difference. I think his daughter lives in Australia so I think he realises that there is a bit of a transition and he speaks English as well. It's good and him having been in New Zealand and knowing the style of football Australia plays is a good thing as well.

You found yourself out of the team for a short period of time, did the manager explain to you why exactly or did he just let you go and work hard on the training ground and back into the team?

He approached me and I think he has done this for most of the team. At the end of the day it's about the team and what's best for the team and I agree with that and I am here for the team to do well and if that's what he thinks then I'm all for it. We've got some massive games coming up so if we can get some points from those I think we can move up the table.

With the Under 20 World Cup being in Korea it means that Incheon are away from home for four straight games, after the win at Sangju would it have been more ideal for you to have be at home then to try to build on that? How do you feel about being on the road again for another month?

I think, honestly, the level is pretty similar between the teams in the K League and I think for our confidence moving forward away or at home, even thought it would be nice to win at home in front of our home fans who have been very patient with us, I think going away shouldn't be an issue.

You've played in a holding midfield role and as a central defender this season for Incheon, you said that you prefer to play as a defender, what is it about that role that make you feel more comfortable?

I think a major thing in my game is reading the game and cutting things out and being on the ball and things like that. At centre back and I can see the game a little bit more, I think that's a major thing; me reading the game, stopping things before they happen or being in a position to make sure that things don't happen. I think in defensive midfield you have the game around you, adapting that I don;t think it'd be an issue for me, but it would take me a bit more time for me to adapt to that.

I think fans often wonder about the training and the tactics and how they are instilled on the training ground, what is it like compared to back home?

I think it's quite similar, Shooting is a major thing here, which I think is good and actually back in Australia we should focus more on - working on shooting. Sometimes it's hard but I think football anyway is hard. I think in Australia we have that resilience, we are known as hardworking players as well and we do work really hard but at the same time they [Korean players] are very technical players as well and it is more in smaller areas and things like that where they work on their game. All in all, I think most of it is quite similar.

Who do you get along best with at the club?

I think it's one of the younger boys, he goes to university and he speaks good English,  Lee Jongbin, he's quite funny, him and a young striker [Kim] Boseop. They're two very funny guys but most of the Koreans are funny people and they've got a great sense of humour and every one in the team is nice and are very open to us foreigners.

Is it very much a together squad?

I think for sure, yeah. Obviously speaking English and Korean, you're not going to go and try speak English to a Korean who can't speak English but you still make jokes with all them and you can still understand what's going on it's quite enjoyable to go to training.

Is there anyone that helped you when you first arrived, took you under their wing perhaps?

I think with me being younger I'm more dragged towards the younger players, it's natural. I think [Lee] Jungbin and [Kim] Boseop both speak English so they helped me and if i don't understand some things they will tell me what it is.

What about the other foreign players in the squad, what's their English like?

Yeah, good. Everyone speaks English. Dali (Dalibor Veselinović), Bunni (Gordan Bunoza) and Wesley speak a bit of English but the translator speaks Portuguese and English. Obviously, if you are a foreigner, and there's only four of us so we all sort of arc together but it's good.

When you go to away games do you have a specific roommate that you share with? Do they have any interesting habits or annoying quirks?

It's usually me and Wesley. The culture in Brazil is different and I think they go to bed a lot later but the guy is like a Koala, he just sleeps. It's ridiculous!

This Incheon team, you talked about how that after the first win you're looking up to keep climbing the table, how far do you think this Incheon team can go this season?

I think obviously with the slow start it hurts us. We could have a different outcome in five or ten weeks but you never know; the team is a good team and I think that if we get on a run we can definitely hurt teams and if that's top teams or bottom teams, I think we can win. I think now, it's taken a little while to get the same team sticking together. I think you saw that against Ulsan and Sangju and we've won now as well and it's a major thing. Honestly, I don't know where we could end up.

Who has been your toughest opponent so far?

I think Jeju are quite good, quite strong. I watched the Seoul game [against Incheon] on TV but I think they're quite good as well. Jeonbuk, naturally they're a strong team. I think probably Jeju.

It's very early but do you think they'd be your pick to go on and win the league?

I think maybe Jeonbuk. I think their experience and they've got players who can score and they've been there before. I think Jeju will go close, Suwon will sort of be around fourth but I think Jeju or Seoul too.

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