Ahead of the decisive match against Mongolia, offside.hk talked to Gary White about Hong Kong’s new winning mentality, and how the team may qualify for the final round of the EAFF E-1 Football Championship finals.
Head coach Gary White is about to finish his first competitive campaign and it appears that he starts leaving his mark. The team still has a realistic chance to advance to the 2019 EAFF E-1 Football Championship finals, if things go their way on Friday, November 16th. The situation is rather simple: After the goalless draw in their direct encounter, Hong Kong and North Korea are fighting for the better goal difference. White’s men are taking on Mongolia at 3.10 pm and need to score at least two goals to catch up with their rivals. Provided Hong Kong can win the game, it will then come down to how big of a nuisance Taiwan can be for North Korea, when they play each other a few hours later on the same day at 7.10 pm. Any upset or closely fought scoreline could turn out to be the needed game changer to send Hong Kong through to the EAFF finals that will take place in South Korea in 2019. So for Hong Kong’s head coach Gary White the plan against Mongolia is clear:
“Obviously, it’s going to come down to goals. We expect to dominate this game and push forward. We need to score early, and we need to score often, and that is the mentality in the team. We have enough quality in our squad to do that. And it’s also a question of just taking this responsibility, getting through this tough schedule and trying to put us in a good position to qualify.”
This means that Hong Kong will need to be ready right from the whistle.
“We have to come out on the front foot and attack, attack, attack. We have the quality to do it and we are confident that we can at least do our part, which is to score as many goals as possible, win this game and then see what happens in the following game with Taiwan and North Korea.”
White also believes that North Korea won’t have an easy time, and their frustrating 90 minutes against Hong Kong may have caused some insecurity as well.
“We need a little bit of ‘Lady Luck’ sometimes, but I am very confident. We finished the game against North Korea very, very strong and we can see in the eyes of the North Korean players that they are a little bit under pressure. Our job is now to put them under as much pressure as possible by getting a good win against Mongolia.”
So far the tight schedule of the tournament, with match days on November 11th, 13th, and 16th, has been one of the most challenging factors and required special care for appropriate regeneration to diminish tiredness and injury risk. On this elite level, it takes at least 48 hours for players to recover from a competitive game, however, the break between the first two matches was much shorter than that. White is still proud of how professionally the FA has approached this situation:
“It’s lucky we have got such a good staff here, led by our fitness coach Matthew Pears and Dennis Lo, our head physiotherapist. They have done a great job in making sure the players are fresh and ready for me to put on the field. Our players are focused and mentally strong, and they want to win for Hong Kong and for Hong Kong people, so this is the incentive and the drive that keeps them going.”
Meanwhile, it seems Gary White has already found his preferred team and format. Over the last two games he followed what may best be described as a 4-1-3-2, that is able to unleash the attacking potential. At times the defense seems a bit more vulnerable, but with Festus Baise and Andy Russell there is solid quality in the back. Up front, the coach has mainly counted on Xinjiang Tianshan striker Paul Olivier Ngue, who has yet to score. While some fans and media have questioned his appearance in the starting eleven, Ngue’s presence allows some tactical adjustments, as his physical presence keeps the defenders busy. Still, he has yet to live up to the expectations that rest on him. With Wong Wai and Tan Chun-lok, two of Hong Kong’s new generation have established themselves as (semi-)regulars and are expected to take up greater roles in the team. White has also tried to incorporate new players that had received his attention by merit. 23-year-old Chung Wai-keung proved him right when he scored the match winning goal against Chinese Taipei on November 11th. That said, White also doesn’t seem to shy away from some fundamental changes. This was maybe most visibly established with Huang Yang replacing Yapp Hung-fai as the team captain.
“First of all, it’s to make sure that our goalkeeper Yapp [Hung-fai] is completely focused on being a goalkeeper, because it’s enough stress on him already just being a goalkeeper, as it is such an individual position. And we also wanted to have players on the field closer to the action. Huang Yang is a perfect person to take on this role. Obviously, Yapp will always be a captain, whether he’s got an armband or hasn’t got an armband.”
The decision to change the captain was only made after internal consultations, and the results have been more than positive. The Eastern keeper seems to have found back to his old form and arguably played two of his best games in recent times.
“I sat down with Yapp first, and we discussed it. He completely supports the decision and as you saw [at the North Korean game], he looks so much more relaxed and had such a great game. Not that he has played badly before, but he just looked a little bit more relaxed and focused on his own position. And Huang Yang brings a lot, because players respect him. He leads by example. He’s not a big talker, he is just an action guy. He will show you what he is trying to do in his actions.”
However, there has also been another notable change: the winning mentality that the team proudly displayed, particularly in their latest match against North Korea.
“The mentality has switched completely in the training camp. We finished that game against North Korea, like we had lost the game. That’s how we felt, and that was how much we believed that we could win a team that we had never beaten in our history. So that shows the switch in the mentality of the players now. We are now going to try to win games, rather than trying not to lose, and it’s amazing what you can do with that confidence. And it’s so great to see the players and how they’ve taken on the new ideas, and the new vision. I am very, very proud of their performance [in the game against North Korea].”
The team had a light training in November 15th, during which Alex Akande was still recovering from a knock in the North Korea game. It is yet to see if this will change the plans of the head coach. The match against Mongolia will kick off on Friday, November 16th, at 3:10 pm and will be broadcast live via the EAFF website.