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Former Japan manager Hans Ooft completed his first regular season with the Urawa Reds at the end of last month.

News photoHans Ooft

The Reds finished in 11th place in the first stage and then surprised their fans with a nine-game unbeaten streak at the beginning of the second stage. The boys in red briefly took the Division One lead in October.

But in early November, Urawa started falling short in its league battle and lost its last six matches in the second stage. Urawa reached its first ever final in its 10-year J. League history, losing to the Kashima Antlers 1-0 in the Nabisco Cup final.

The greatest improvement to the Reds team was in defense. It gave away 24 goals in the first stage but cut it down to 14 in the second stage for a total of 38 for the fourth fewest in the league.

Ooft, who set the foundation for three-time J. League champion Jubilo Iwata in the mid-1990s, was pleased with his team’s quick development but on the other hand he was disappointed at the lack of maturity of his players.

The Dutchman talked to The Japan Times about the past season, his first at Urawa.

Japan Times: What do you think about your team’s performance this season?

Ooft: In our learning period, which was from January to the beginning of May, we did a lot of things to get used to each other and our players learned things quite rapidly. But they didn’t get the rewards, I mean, points from matches, in return.

After the World Cup break and the preparation for the latter half of the season, from August till the end of October, our performances were good and we also got the results. As our first aim was to establish our style and play well in the J. League, I thought that happened quite quickly.

But because we took the league lead and made it to the final of the Nabisco Cup, we drew so much attention to ourselves, especially from the media, and we couldn’t handle it well as a team.

The rest of the season was a little bit disappointing because we didn’t get any points in our last six matches.

Do you think the six-game losing streak came because the team achieved success too quickly?

Yes. Everything happened all at once. That was a double success and a double disappointment. You have to deal with pressure and the increasing expectations for the team. After you win some matches, people expect miracles from you. But this is the same group of players who have played together from the beginning of the season.

Dealing with raised expectations is something we have to learn. In a way it was a good experience for our players.

But some critics harshly stated that the Reds betrayed their fans. The team brought its fans high hopes of winning the Nabisco Cup and the J. League second stage but failed in both of them.

That is so negative. Our players wanted to achieve something and they did their best. The team has to be in good shape physically and mentally. If one of these is missing, the shape of your team goes down.

We maintained the league lead as long as possible. But the better you do, the harder you tend to fall. It’s a matter of how quickly you can recover from that. We also didn’t lose matches by large margins but by the odd goal. (In the last six games, the Reds lost 2-1 once and 1-0 five times, two of which were in extra time.)

Was it a surprise for you to see your players develop so quickly?

Normally you need one year to learn but they started changing after only six months.

You have also seen the rise of some good young players in your side.

In March, I already knew that some youngsters, (defender Keisuke) Tsuboi, (midfielder Keita) Suzuki and (midfielder Tadaaki) Hirakawa would be good. I’m happy. Tsuboi did a good job for us in defense in his first season. This is the first time in my life that a defender has done so well without getting any yellow cards the whole season. That is unbelievable. Maybe, if he goes one step further, he may have to pick up some yellow cards. But in the learning process, he’s done a terrific job and he deserves his invitation to Zico’s Japan squad.

Your team’s defense improved this season. How would you assess the rest of your team’s play?

Our defenders did a good job. But our build-up play is something we have to improve. You know you cannot work on everything in one season. If you work on all elements at the same time, nothing will settle 100 percent. So, we deal with things piece by piece.

Emerson scored 15 goals in 24 matches. He could have scored more goals as he seems to have potential.

Emerson knows himself that he has to improve the precision in his shooting and finishing, scoring once out of three chances instead of once out of five. He has learned a lot of things this season but still has more to learn — combining with other players, reading the game, and keeping his cool in front of goal. If he can do that, he will be on the right track and reach the highest level. We can also help him with a better build-up from midfield to keep him in the forward area instead of making him run from midfield to the front.

What do you think about one of your veteran players, Masahiro Fukuda?

He did a good job. He had to take a more defensive role this year but he knows himself that he has lost some of his speed. He is so fit that he can play 90 minutes without any problems, especially at the beginning of the season. He’s made a good contribution to the club and the team. I’m very happy with him.

You have invited him to join your coaching staff next season.

I don’t want to waste so much knowledge and want to see retired players stay with the club.

Fukuda is often referred to as “Mr. Reds” after he has played so long with the club. Is that a part of the reason you would like to keep him on at the club?

That’s another reason but not the main one. He can help us with his knowledge of the players, how to deal with pressure and how to deal with situations on the pitch. And we can help him develop his coaching career. He can help our youngsters improve their technique and tactics as well.

What are your plans and objectives for next season?

We’d like to establish ourselves in the top five or so to be in the top group in the coming years along with Jubilo and the Kashima Antlers.

I think Gamba could come closer to the top level as a club. We are getting better and the Yokohama F. Marinos seem to be coming along too. That is what you need for a good league, lots of teams challenging.

Do you plan to acquire any new players for next season?

No comment. I am still working on it now.

In all, are you satisfied with your first season with the Reds?

I’m never satisfied. I’m happy we reached the final of the Nabisco Cup. That was one big step. But we have to make more steps forward to be successful.

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