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Interview: Suwon FC's Adrian Leijer

As the 2017 K League Challenge season draws to a close, Suwon FC defender Adrian Leijer took the time out to play some FIFA and answer your questions about life in K League, how VAR has affected the game, the growth (or lack thereof) of the game in China, and much more.

FIFA 17 Interview

While whipping up on the Jeonnam Dragons, Adrian also went into detail about how VAR affects the game, being a foreign player in the Asian game, and the differences in training and physicality from league to league.


Full Interview

We weren't able to get to all of your questions during FIFA, and we had a few of our own, so Adrian was kind enough to take the time out and answer all of them in a bit more detail.

Squad rotation is something that we see a lot in the K League, what is it like for you as a player?

I think because the squads are so big and things like that they tend to rotate probably more than what you’d expect. Sometimes it can be a little unsettling and a little surprising but I think, because where I’ve played before you’ve sort of stick with a winning formula a lot, and here I’ve sort of taken the mentality that you can’t control much outside of what you do. So, do your best in training and look after yourself and the outside stuff will just take care of itself. You can’t think too much about all that squad rotation and stuff because it does happen a lot.

Does the manager ever explain why, or is it just something that you find out there and then?

From my experience, no (doesn’t explain). It’s just the way they do it, certain managers. It’s the same wherever, UK and Australia for example. Tony Popovic, for example, is one of the most recognised coaches in Australia and he changes his team off the cuff and players have no idea so every manager is different I suppose and in Korea it sort of seems to be a common thing.

Speaking of different managers, Cho Dukje left in summer, what was the mood in the camp like when he went? 

This season's been quite weird, it's been a real up and down season. We started well and then a couple of things didn't go our way. And then, when the U20 World Cup was on we moved out to Yongin and the whole training set up changed and the dynamic was changed and the players had to go and live out there. We lost a lot of games in that period, didn’t play at home for about 6-7 weeks: that was a real unsettling period for us. Then we got back on track, and then we fell away again and the season never really got going then the coach resigned. We bounced back after he resigned and now there’s two weeks to go until the end of the season and the club have just appointed another coach. So, just go and do your best and do what you have to do.

It’s perhaps a bit strange that they decided to bring in a new coach with just two weeks to go, have you had chance to meet the new manager yet?

We are due to meet him on Tuesday. I think the logic behind it is that he can come in and have a look at the players he’s got and what he thinks he needs to change, who he wants to keep – that’s obviously the logic. For the players it’s a bit of a strange one but it is what it is: you can’t control it, you just have to get on with it.

Will you be here next year, have you thought that far ahead?

Yeah, I’ve thought about it. There’s a bit going on now, discussions and things but we haven’t made a decision yet. The family is happy here so we’d be comfortable staying, we’re just waiting to see where we end up.

Our Gyeongnam columnist James Edrupt was wondering whether you'd consider Gyeongnam next year? Is that a side you'd want to play for?
For sure. Actually, playing in Gyeongnam I love the scenery and not just the stadium but the surroundings of the city are beautiful. Being from Australia and being used to open spaces, I'd love to but I've got to be realistic so we'll just see what comes up in the next few months.

When you were in China, the manager that signed you left a year later – was that a bearing on your decision to leave China and come to Korea? 

In China the coach from our first season got offered another job and took that, a Korean coach came in. My translator called me and told me and as I took the Asian spot (Asian quota), I said to him “well, that’s me done”. And, a week later they’d signed a Korean National Team defensive midfielder Jung Wooyoung so as soon as that happened I just knew that the writing was on the wall and I had to go look elsewhere.

And that was an interesting period for me, the first time in my career I had been out of contract (I terminated my contract) and I had to go there for a month on my own and train on my own and push for my termination agreement. And then I was in Australia for four days before Suwon FC came up, it was right for the family – the city, a good challenge for me to go to the K League Classic. I didn’t want to go back to Australia so soon, I wanted to sort of experience Asia a bit more and a new country and new surroundings for me and the family.

(Adrian during his Melbourne Victory days. Image via zimbio.com)

Do you see yourself going back to Australia eventually to finish your career or would you like to do that abroad?

I’m not sure exactly what I want to do. It probably depends, the only club in Australia I want to play for is Melbourne Victory, that’s sort of where my heart has been in Australia for my whole life. I think I wouldn’t want to go and play for another club so if that option wasn’t there then I’ll stay in Asia. I’m at an age now where I’m experienced enough, I’ve seen China and Korea, I’ve seen the dynamics of Asian football and I’ve got good experience behind me so I think mentally I am in a good position to pursue Asia. But, also, if there’s a chance to come home, if it did eventuate then that would be good too.

Erik Paartalu has been in the news a bit lately. He was in North Korea, but also after Ali Abbas opened up about the poor experience he had in Pohang, Erik talked about his troubled time at Jeonbuk. What’s your experience been like here? Have you seen or heard of that kind of treatment going on here or elsewhere during your career?

All the Aussie players here get in contact with each other as soon someone arrives so it’s funny; you’ve got five or six players on one had who have had a shocking experience then you have a lot who have had a good experience. You look at Paartalu at Jeonbuk and you look at Alex Wilkinson, so there’s two sides to the way it can go. For me, the huge advantage that I’ve had is that I’ve played every week. Things aren’t perfect, it’s never perfect or it’s not what you’re used to, but if you’ve got a game to focus on every week, at least you’re playing and at least you’re motivated and you need to get yourself ready for a game. Whereas these guys that get pushed out they lose their motivation, they have to train on their own and it becomes just a vicious cycle.

It’s a difficult one, I feel really sorry for those guys but then again you just have to make the most of the opportunity and for me I feel really lucky that I got to travel the world and play football, experience the Chinese culture, experience the Korean culture and meet people, learn things. It’s pretty cool.

Have you been on a team that has had someone frozen out, or have you been frozen out?

It’s happened in Australia to players when I was back in Australia, it happened to me in China. I had a two-year contract, went back for pre-season on the 4th January and the team went away for their pre-season camp and I just stayed there and trained on my own. I more so did that out of digging my heels in and fighting for my position. Sometimes it's your reality and you've just have to put up with it. That time in China I think I ended up spending a month there on my own and I felt it was hard, and I was frustrated, and I was like "what's going on, we've got to fix this - let's get it done, I want to get out of here" but I just trained and did what I could do and got a good outcome in the end.

The thing about football is, you can feel incredible sorry for yourself but we are in a very fortunate position. What we do is hard but there's so many people out there that dream of doing what we do so we're very lucky and there's so many people worse off than us and so you just have to take the good times with the bad.

There seems to be a pattern in terms of the way Korean teams recruit players; if you want a quick striker or winger you go to Brazil, but if you want an Asian quota central defender then you sign an Australian. There's been a lot of defenders that have come from Australia to play in the K League, why do you think that Korean clubs go for Australian defenders in particular? What qualities to Australian defenders bring to the K League?

I think it's because we are physical, Australian players are physical. Defensively, I think are strong, we know how to organise a team in front of us: it's pretty important. I think as well, Australian players coming here and doing well sets the standard and the tone. If you look in the past and (Saša) Ognenovski (Seongnam) came here and did really well, Alex Wilkinson (Jeonnam Dragons) came here and did really well, Corny (Robert Cornthwaite - Jeonnam Dragons), Alex (Aleksandar Jovanović) at Jeju, Matty Jurman (Suwon Bluewings) so these guys, if you come here and do well then other clubs say "we can get an Australian". Australians are not as expensive as other players around the world as the salaries Australia aren't high so you don't have to pay Australians as much. And, I think as well that it's probably the character of Australians; we fight for everything,  It's sort of a cultural thing where we're known to be battlers and we just get on with things and I think that's probably the defenders that you've seen here that have done well have done that - that's why they keep coming back.

When we spoke to Bruce Djite in May we asked him what areas of his game he felt that had improved since he'd been here and he felt that it was his decision making, what do you feel has improved in your game since you've been here?

I think probably the intensity of the games, you've got to adapt to it. When I was in the UK I sort of enjoyed that side of it. In China I missed that side of it because I felt a lot of the games were dead, you're just out there and you're going through the motions and the intensity wasn't there, it was pretty flat. So, coming to the K League Classic I loved that, I loved that vibe. The players in the K League Classic they're professional and they work hard so I really enjoyed coming up against Korean National Team strikers and top quality foreigners. Even in the K League Challenge there's a couple of National Team level strikers that you play against so you're playing against good players and that can only improve you.

Who has been the striker that has impressed you the most that you've played against in K League?
I enjoyed playing against the striker at Seongnam, National Team Player Hwang Uijo. He used to be a real test; like his runs in behind, his movement - all that was very, very good. I think his finishing maybe lets him down a little bit but as a striker, and his movement and such, I had to be switched on the whole time. I had some good battles with him.

You've played against Lee Junghyup as well this season, he's another Korean National Team player in the K League Challenge. What's he like to play against?

He's a similar style, he's a good player as well and I think he scored against us when we played them away. Like I said, these guys, there's National Team players in the Classic and in the Challenge.

Connor Chapman, a fellow Australian defender, with Incheon United's situation with it being quite similar to how it was for Suwon FC last year where you joined the team in the K League Classic but then unfortunately went down then stayed, if that does happen to Incheon what advice would you give to him in terms of whether to stay or go?

It's a hard one and it's an individual decision. I think everyone's circumstances are different. For me I'm older, I'm 31 and my ambitions for Socceroos are in the past but for him, he's a young guy and if he wants to push onto that level then you'd have to assume he'd have to stay in the K League Classic. But, as well, the Challenge it's a decent league, it's a tough league and I think people who don't see it, especially people outside of Korea sort of think "ah, second division Korea - can't be that good" but it's good and it's tough and I think they call it "the league of death", it's got a nickname like that because it's so hard to get out of. This year there's been a lot of good teams in there, Busan, Seongnam, Gyeongnam, Asan the police team - there's good teams. So, if he does stay and they get relegated it's not such a bad thing to stay as well.

Talking more about guys that are staying or leaving, Matthew Jurman playing well for the Socceroos against Syria in both legs, how much do you think that's going to change the perception here as K League as a league? 

I think so and I think Alex Wilkinson probably, and Saša Ognenovski now Matty Jurman have come here not as Socceroos and found a place, done well and it has been noticed back home. For guys like him, he went to the right club for one. I think the club, if anyone is coming aspiring to be a Socceroo, it has to be top a four K League Classic club. He's done really well playing against Korean National Team players, it's a different way of defending and a different style of football and he's adjusted. I watched him play against Jeonbuk and he had a great game and I wasn't surprised that we was called up for the Socceroos. He's a good boy, got a good head on his shoulders and hopefully can get to the World Cup.

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