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Ogura: I’ve worked in football for 30 years

Living in a pressure-cooker environment that is the Lions job is one Tsutomu Ogura believes he will thrive in, as the Japanese coach will draw on his experiences at J.League sides Tokyo Verdy and Yokohama Marinos.

Ogura, 57, was unveiled by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) on Feb 1 as the new director for both the senior and Under-22 men’s teams. Besides coaching the Lions, he will oversee the U-22 side’s performances and its coach.

His career in football started in 1989 as coach in his hometown of Osaka at the Doshisha Kori High School and it has included roles as head coach, assistant coach and as a sporting director at Yokohama from 2018-2021, a spell which saw Ange Postecoglou – now Tottenham Hotspur manager – guide the club to their first J. League title in 15 years in 2019. 

Ogura said: “For about 30 years, there is always pressure. When I was sporting director in Yokohama, in the first year we were.... close to relegation to the second division.

“Every day, there was pressure from the president, pressure from the sponsors and pressure from the fans. People were saying change the coach. At that moment, do you know who was the coach? Ange Postecoglou. In the second year, we were champions.”

He noted that he had a similar experience whilst an assistant at Verdy, who gained promotion to the Japanese top tier last season.

He said: “Verdy does not have a big budget. We played against Shimizu S-Pulse (during the promotion playoff)...who have three times the budget as us. On the pitch, budget is not so important. What is important is being one team. That is the mentality I have. I enjoy the pressure.”

In the 2023 J.League 2 playoff final last December, Verdy scored a penalty in stoppage time to secure a 1-1 draw against S-Pulse, gaining promotion to the top tier for the first time since 2008.

Referencing that nervy finish, Ogura said the key was the players’ fighting spirit. He added: “The player’s attitude must be one where they never give up. Look at Malaysia in the Asian Cup. Down 2-3 to South Korea and they made it 3-3 in the last minute.

“In Verdy, during the playoff, we were down 1-0. But suddenly we had a penalty in the last minute of the game, we drew and we went up. This is magical and people will say it is a miracle but it is a result of hard work.

“We must excite, we must make the fans feel it in their heart that they want to support us. Speaking is easy but doing is difficult, I know. My confidence in why I can do this is because I have worked for a long time as a coach. I know what we need to change because of my experience.”

But before Ogura starts to inject fight in the squad, he must form one. He has insisted it will be a clean slate for everyone. His first assignment will be the World Cup qualifiers against China – at home on March 21 and away on March 26. There is also the AFF Championship, expected to run from late November to December in a home-and-away format.

The 2023 season ended with the Singapore Cup final on Dec 9 and most local players have just returned to pre-season training with their Singapore Premier League (SPL) clubs in the last two weeks. Ogura plans to observe some of these sessions.

A pre-season tournament for the clubs in late February is also being planned before Ogura calls up his first squad for a centralised training camp expected to run from March 10-18.

Japanese football journalist Yoichi Igawa said fans here can expect a distinctive style on the pitch. He said: “When it comes to philosophy, it is an attacking-minded one due to his days with Postecoglou at Marinos and this approach would be similar to how he conducts his training.”

Verdy season ticket holder Lewis White, 40, said Ogura had a “no-nonsense presence” and urged the local fraternity to be patient. He said: “He’ll focus on building a solid unit that closes down the opposition quickly, recycles possession when there are no clear opportunities to go forward, and makes sure they constantly work and work to make themselves very tough to break down.

“If he goes with this approach, he’ll make Singapore a difficult team to beat.

“But it won’t be free-flowing stuff: fans should be patient and trust the system. This might frustrate supporters at times but it could lead to results if you’re working with a team with limited resources.”