Okon to develop Young Socceroos through curriculum

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Paul Okon is one of the most technically gifted players Australia has ever produced. He captained the Socceroos 24 times in 28 full international caps and played at the highest level in Belgium, Italy and England. Anthony Siokos sat down with Okon to discuss his appointment as Young Socceroos (U-20s) coach and the development of our most talented players through the setup of Football Federation Australia’s National Curriculum.

There aren’t many former Socceroos who can say they lead their country almost every time they put on the green and gold. Intelligence and intrinsic motivation are hallmarks of great leaders. Okon has certainly made his mark as a player. Now at 40 years of age, he has channelled his energy into coaching and the development of Australia’s next generation of talent.

It’s a job that requires a high level of technical and tactical insight. For the first time ever in Australian football there is a national curriculum, which Okon is keen to implement whilst staying true to himself. He has no time to waste as he is also assistant to Aurelio Vidmar, coach of the Olyroos (U-23s).

The inaugural AFC U-22 Championships is set for January 2014 with qualification matches to begin in June 2012. Okon will effectively be involved in both camps, gaining a holistic understanding of Australia’s ability to compete in Asia and world football.

“My objective is to be able to make a difference to the players, to do things better. It’s very important at that age as it will determine what opportunities lie ahead for both the players and Australia’s future,” said Okon.

“I’m still learning the game today. As a former player, I can honestly say that it doesn’t mean you can be a top coach. You must get the right education.”

Okon has spent time at Lazio, Arsenal, Club Brugge and De Graafschap over the past year in order to improve his understanding of the challenges in coaching young players. He┬áhas enrolled to complete his Pro Licence – the highest coaching level in professional football – and should hold this qualification by the end of 2012.

FFA National Technical Director, Han Berger, has made it clear that Okon must stick to the curriculum but can impart his individual expression where needed. There are two variations to the 1-4-3-3 formation rationale. Okon expressed his preference to play “Basic Form 2″ or with one holding midfielder. Although, depending on the players he has available and the quality of the opposition, playing with two holding midfielders may be necessary.

“As a coach, you always want more time and access to players.”

“The point of the midfield triangle to the rear is a position for a highly technical player. It’s specialised.”

“I am aware that I need to work to develop a number 6 but I also want to focus on the number 7, 11 and 10 positions.”

“I believe it’s to my advantage having played as a defender and midfielder in Europe and internationally. I understand the link between the positions. I will transfer my knowledge to the players, I always want more time, but I believe I have a good base to start from.”

He expressed his confidence in Australia’s talent. The curriculum is more than a document. If implemented throughout Australia’s grassroots, it would give other U-20s coaches a more centralised understanding of each player’s role.

“I put my hand on my heart and say this with all honesty: Up to the age of 20, I think Australian players are as good as any others from any country in the world.”

“Where we need to improve is how we think: our decision-making. Players need to think before they receive the ball, two to three steps ahead. Tactical awareness is crucial.”

“If you have the ability, you can be taught to think. We all need a little patience. We did well at the U-19s in Malaysia. At the last two World Youth Cups, we played 1-4-3-3. We need another two to three World Youth Cups to see whether it’s worked. It’s unfair to criticise because we have been brave enough to go in this way. That direction needs time.”

“Many of the top countries in the world are making constant changes. Look at Germany and what they’ve done with their U-16s youth teams. Australia has done the same thing, we’re implementing change. Development is more important than winning at this age.”

“From the Joeys (U-17s) to the Olyroos, less work will be needed on shape in our training sessions as players would have been working under the same system. The level of understanding will improve.”

Okon was an assistant at Gold Coast United during the 2009-10 Hyundai A-League season. Like many, he has been particularly impressed by the quality of football played by Brisbane Roar.

“Ange’s football is the closest I’ve seen in the A-League to the national curriculum. It’s good coaching.”

“It’s important to create scenarios in training and challenge the players to replicate it in matches. Too many coaches pre-judge. I believe you need to create it and then let them do it before jumping to any conclusions.”

“Whether it’s modified games or anything else, the environment and volume of training will ultimately set the building blocks to become a better player.”

He is a very competitive person, someone who represented himself and his country with great pride as a player. The Young Socceroos will be proactive, play a possession-based game and hopefully, be successful in their upcoming tournaments.

“It’s important to know what you want in your mind, through the good times and bad. I stuck to this philosophy as a player and am prepared for it as a coach. I think this forms a strong basis for a long coaching career.”

If Okon’s coaching replicates his days as a player, our Young Socceroos are in the hands of a technician.

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