Jan Hoepner, before the coronavirus pandemic and the suspension of fixtures, the U17s scored eleven goals in winning the last two games. You were in good form...
Hoepner: We were in good shape, that’s right. We produced good performances going forward at the end against Fortuna Düsseldorf and Preußen Münster. We took a step forward as a team recently and several players have developed really well during this phase. We were looking forward to the top games against Schalke, Gladbach and Dortmund. But then coronavirus intervened...
Then the season was interrupted and it wasn’t possible to train as a squad anymore. How did you stay fit, how did the communication with the players work out – in short: How did you organise yourselves?
We tried to use the media available to us to keep in permanent contact with the lads. For a start, we were in contact with the players via an app. We coaches primarily set the players athletic targets that were set out using training plans. We were able to check the runs via screenshots. Now and then, we held meetings via teleconferencing and were able to give the lads new information. There were also gymnastic, yoga and athletic session via video. The lads were commendable in the way they stuck to the plans and applied themselves with great ambition and self-motivation.
It’s been confirmed that the season will not continue. What were the reactions from the players and with you as the coaching staff?
It was to be expected. And, to be honest, we assumed the season would be abandoned. The termination wasn’t particularly surprising for the players. But, of course, we would have liked to play the last games as it’s all about: testing yourself on the pitch and developing your game.
You ended the season fifth on 38 points (having played one game less). What’s your assessment of that ranking?
The ranking is difficult to assess without having played the teams in the top spots in the second half of the season. We’ve basically had a decent season even though there were a couple of low points when we gave games away that we definitely shouldn’t have lost. If we’re talking about positions: I think we could have finished third.
Looking back: What moments in the season will you most remember?
We beat Preußen Münster in the first half of the season and our youngest player in the whole league scored the two winning goals in the final fifteen minutes and he could have been playing for the U15s. That was a great experience. Otherwise, as a coach, it’s always great for me to see the development of the individual lads. We don’t have a U16 team at Bayer 04 and we’re the only U17 squad in Germany made up of two year groups. It’s always a challenge to bring through the younger ones. But the 2004 year group quickly got used to the tempo of the youth Bundesliga and they matched the level of the lads born in 2003.
Striker Emrehan Gedikli stood out this season: He’s top scorer in the league with 17 goals. What’s he like on the pitch and how do see his future?
For starters: I’m pretty sure Emre would have scored more goals this season. Unfortunately, he was out injured for a couple of crucial matches. He has outstanding quality in the penalty area, is incredibly good at finishing and very accurate with his right foot. Emre is a very motivated lad who wants to go a long way in the game. If he continues to work hard on himself then I think he can go a long way.
Since last week, you’ve been back on the training ground working in small groups. What does training look like at the moment and do you manage to keep motivation high without having a specific target in sight?
We’re training two days a week in groups of four as we’re not allowed to run full training sessions as yet. the training sessions are purely technical without challenges and tackles. At the same time, we’ve given the players athletic timetables to fill the days in between. The lads are very motivated in the sessions. Even though there isn’t a target for the season, all the players are pursuing a very high personal target – they want to go as far as they can in football. Accordingly, every session is a chance for them to improve.
In the U17 age group, youth players have the first chance to compete in a youth Bundesliga. How big is the step-up from the U15 Regional Leagues?
It’s a very big step. On the one hand, there are a lot of physical changes in those age groups – the U17 players are already very advanced, almost men. You have to get used to that at first. On the other, the pace of the game isn’t comparable either and it’s more physical. It is a big step, but the lads do it again and again and they keep surprising me with great performances and quickly adapting.
The next step for the players is the U19 team: How does the co-operation between the U19 coaches work at Bayer 04? And do you communicate with the first team coaches around Peter Bosz?
We work very closely with the U19s. We coaches – obviously a bit less at the moment – are in one office, we discuss all the players and we also work together in carrying out joint training sessions. I don’t think you can have a closer working relationship. That makes it much easier to transition to the squad situation because we’re in permanent contact with each other. In a roundabout way, we also communicate with the first team assistant coaches but the interface for the youth section actually goes through Helmut Jungheim (head of the academy, ed.) and the U19 coaches.
The DFL has recently lowered the age limit for Bundesliga clubs: Young talents will be able to play alongside the first team players at the age of 16 in future. What’s your assessment of this change?
The Bundesliga clubs try to bring the talented youngsters through to the first team squad early. I think that age is very young. If a lad is actually in a position to play Bundesliga football at that age, then I think that’s ok. But you always have to take the pressure into account and everything else that’s rains down on the lads. the clubs should always look at the individual cases to see how the player is coping with the whole thing.
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