New coach for slumping K League club determined to shake off personal disappointment

June 5, 2024

As the new head coach of the struggling K League 1 club Daejeon Hana Citizen, Hwang Sun-hong said Wednesday he will try to move past his own personal disappointment to put his team back on track.

Hwang, 55, was appointed as Daejeon’s new bench boss Monday, with the club mired in 11th place among 12 clubs in the top South Korean league with 14 points from 16 matches.

It was viewed as a controversial hiring in many quarters, since Hwang was only a few weeks removed from a spectacular failure as head coach of South Korea’s under-23 men’s national team.

With Hwang running the show, South Korea failed to qualify for the Paris Olympics, after losing to Indonesia on penalties in the quarterfinals of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) U-23 Asian Cup in Qatar. South Korea had played at every Olympic men’s football tournament since 1988, but the streak ended unceremoniously with a loss to underdogs.

With wounds still fresh at his introductory presser as a Daejeon boss Wednesday, Hwang said he was determined to get back on his feet.

“The important question is, are you going to stay down, or are you going to get back up?” Hwang said at Daejeon World Cup Stadium in Daejeon, some 140 kilometers south of Seoul. “At this point, it was important for me to trust myself and take on a new challenge. Between fighting again and giving up, I chose the former. I will keep on fighting.”

Hwang said he still felt terrible about letting fans down and added he was sorry to players who will not get to experience the Olympics.

Prior to taking over the U-23 program in September 2021, Hwang had coached Daejeon in 2020 while they were still in the second-tier K League 2. His first spell didn’t even last a season, as he stepped down midway through the 2020 season with the club in third place — despite preseason expectations that they would contend for the league title.

“I’d like to thank the club for giving me another opportunity,” Hwang said. “I will try my best to put this club back on the right track. As coaches, there is no stopping for us. We have to keep trying to win, and I think taking this job is part of that process for me.”

Hwang said he wouldn’t have returned to the K League if it hadn’t been with Daejeon.

“During my first stint here, there are so many things I could have done better,” Hwang said. “And I decided to come back here because I wanted to push the club over the hump. I think we have an opportunity to lay the foundation to become a contending club in the future. But the most pressing issue is we have to get out of the relegation zone.”

From the K League 1, the 12th-place club at the end of the season will suffer direct relegation to the K League 2. The 11th- and 10th-place teams must survive promotion-relegation playoffs against K League 2 opponents to stay in the top division for the following season.

Daejeon earned a promotion to the top league after the 2022 season and finished in eighth place among the big boys in 2023. In Year 2, however, they are in danger of falling back to the K League 2.

Daejeon have netted just 15 goals in 16 matches so far this year, tied for the second-fewest total, and they have the second-worst goal difference at -7.

Hwang, a premier striker during his playing days, said he’d like Daejeon to become more assertive.

“Philosophically, I want us to dominate and seize control in matches,” he said. “Modern football is all about battling for space. And without precision, you will be wasting a lot of energy. I believe we have to play more direct football that can utilize space.”

The new coach also acknowledged that instilling a new system on the fly in midseason may be easier said than done, especially considering the lack of offensive talent for Daejeon.

“I understand we can’t be perfect in every aspect all at once. Still, offense is the most important thing at the moment,” Hwang said. “I think we need a devastating attacker. It may not be easy to acquire someone in the middle of the season, but I will be talking with our management.”

Hwang has a strong track record in the K League. In 2013 with Pohang Steelers, he pulled off a domestic double by winning the K League 1 and the FA Cup titles. Hwang added another K League 1 title with FC Seoul in 2016. He was voted the K League 1′s Coach of the Year in 2013 and 2016.