Inside Aussie coach’s 2024 ‘mission’ to make history with club ‘everyone has an eye on’

Peter Cklamovski joined FC Tokyo midway through the J1 League season. The Australian speaks to KEEPUP about the campaign just gone by in Japan and what’s exciting him heading into the 2024 campaign.

Peter Cklamovski’s face said it all. The way he smiled and how his eyes lit up when he spoke about his plans for 2024.

“(The plan is to) get all of Japan talking about FC Tokyo’s football,” he told KEEPUP.

When Cklamovski was appointed by FC Tokyo in June last year, the Australian revealed his plan: “I want to light up Tokyo. I want to bring Tokyo to life for football”.

It’s a clear vision he is committed to.

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A month removed from the 2023 campaign and the J1 League is in the latter stages of its off-season, but Cklamovski’s mind is in overdrive, preparing for his first full season in the Japanese capital.

Ange Postecoglou’s former right-hand man replaced Spaniard Albert Puig after 17 rounds and Tokyo went on to finish 12th, behind champions Vissel Kobe and Kevin Muscat’s runners-up Yokohama F.Marinos.

“A reference point from day one to the end of the season, there’s some real solid progress but every aspect can improve,” Cklamovski reflected. “Even though we were sitting in really good positions if you look at some stats, we can’t sit still and think it’s going to be enough.

“That’s where my excitement comes. Get the team playing a brand of football that’s attacking and aggressive, that mentality to score goals.

“Get this team playing like the club has never seen it before. That’s my excitement… If I can get that right and that daily mentality, I know we can take some steps forward.”

Like his mentor Postecoglou, Cklamovski has an unrelenting belief in his philosophy – an emphasis on a high-octane style of attacking football.

He was brought in to transform Tokyo and there have been signs of improvement through his first six months in the hotseat.

Between rounds 18 and 34, Tokyo ranked first for most goals scored from open play and clean sheets, while they were also fifth for goals scored and sixth for least goals conceded.

“If you get a group of men – for us its 30 players and a group of staff – say 30 across the football department. If you get 50-60 men pushing in the same direction every day to be at their best, pushing and helping each other, then that for me sets up the culture to enable progress,” he said.

“Which then if you can take those steps, success can follow that. How is success defined? Can it be measured in trophies? Yes of course. But not every club is a trophy club.

“The main objective for me is to get progress in everything we do in a football perspective. Get my team playing the way I want to watch a team play. In my journey, when you can connect those dots, success can follow that. That will be the mission for FC Tokyo.

“Get a real hungry mentality which is building strongly in that daily training environment. Keep building the football to get better, which I think it needs to get better. If we can connect those dots, we will be hard to play against and beat. If you can get momentum in a league like this, you never know where it can take you.

“In our situation, we have to be humble and realise where we’re sitting. Overall last year, it was midtable. We know we have to roll our sleeves up, work hard. We can’t be complacent and just go for it. With our supporters behind us, with good hard work, diligent work on the field, get our preparation right, I know we can achieve anything.”

Cklamovski has been making waves in Japan, where he has been based since 2017 having worked been by Postecoglou’s side when the Aussie trailblazer ended F.Marinos J1 League title drought in 2019.

At J2 League outfit Montedio Yamagata, Cklamovski turned the club from relegation candidates in 2021 to promotion hopefuls, despite a limited budget.

In 2022, the club fell agonisingly short in their bid to return to the top flight for the first time since 2015.

Montedio drew 2-2 in the second round of the play-offs, meaning Roasso Kumamoto advanced to the deciding play-off with their higher finish during the regular season, before the Aussie was sensationally sacked in 2023.

During his first six months in Tokyo, Cklamovski’s side beat Mitch Langerak’s high-flying Nagoya Grampus in his maiden match in charge. They also conceded a 91st-minute minute goal away to Muscat’s Mariners in a 2-1 loss in August.

The following week, a goal in the 14th minute of stoppage time saw them heartbreakingly denied by eventual champions Vissel Kobe in an incredible 2-2 draw.

“Two good tests for us. Obviously Marinos and Kobe number one and two. A good way to measure ourselves,” Cklamovski reflected as he tries to implement a style of football that excites.

“We can certainly throw punches against them. At the same time, to be that top team, it gave us lessons that we need to be consistent over the 90 minutes. Be measured in every detail of the game and ultimately that’s what the best and what the champions do.

“It’s a lesson for us that we need to do it consistently and back it up week after week. That’s the growth and evolution we need to achieve in the season coming.”

But Cklamovski is aware of the task at hand.

Tokyo won the J.League Cup in 2020 and the 2011 Emperor’s Cup, though they have never conquered the J1 League.

It is a club and supporter base craving silverware and demanding success. That is what is fuelling Cklamovski to climb that mountain and “influence change”.

“It’s the club everyone in Japan kind of has an eye on because it’s the capital club. Within that, it has a proud history but one that’s never won the league before. That’s sort of a little bit of a burden, what I see, on the club,” he explained.

“Everyone’s talking about winning the league and unfortunately the club’s never done that. There’s certainly some key pillars why that maybe hasn’t happened in the past. That’s my job to try to influence change and get progress to start climbing that mountain to get to the top.

“It’s something that will be a massive achievement but at the same time, we have to stay humble and realise we have a lot of hard work to do for that to happen. Our supporters are fantastic. They’re desperate for us to bring success. That’s the demand of the club, they demand success which is great.

“Our fans travel, they are fantastic and they get right behind us. I know the players and club are all doing what we can to achieve our dreams altogether. But we have a fair bit of work to do.”

This is Cklamovski’s second stint in Japan’s top flight following a brief spell with Shimizu S-Pulse in 2020.

During his time in Japan, culture and communication have shaped his tenures, on top of an attacking brand of football built on physicality.

The former Perth Glory, Adelaide United and Melbourne Victory coach, and Socceroos assistant said: “When I first started, the physical perspective of our team – we were getting outrun and outsprinted often in that first half of the year.

“I kind of looked at it and thought, gee whiz how are going to get fit and fitter? The physical part of the game for me is important for the way I want to play and we weren’t at that level when I first started. But the growth was there.

“That first game against Nagoya, we did 5km more than them and outsprinted them. So how does that happen? What I know is, I can send a message that gets into their head and heart, which gives them extra power. Do you want to do that every week? Hopefully not but hopefully the environment and program builds that mentality every week without the message.

“That’s a little bit of an example how important the message can be. Communication is key. That means I have to be clear in how I communicate in every way, whether that’s on the field, off the field, in the video, one on one. Don’t waste a second of a players time. Make every second count. To do that you have to be clear in your mind and how you get the message across.”

All this is done while juggling a language barrier, but his job is made easier thanks to his trusted translator Hiroshi Endo.

The pair have worked together for a couple of years now.

“It’s fantastic. He has eyes like a coach now. Vision of a game the way I see it basically,” he said.

“It’s a really good connection I have with him. A super character. He wants the best for everyone around him. I enjoy every day working with him.

“We get constant visitors from around Asia, and even some clubs from Europe. There was a few people who could speak Japanese and English. They’ve been in team meetings, watched the training process and the week preparation.

“The guys who can understand Japanese and English are blown away by how clear our connection is from my message then to the Japanese message on top.

“It was really interesting feedback. It’s like wow. I feel like it’s a powerful meeting we do and you can tell from the buy in from the players. To get that feedback from external people who have no emotional attachment to it was great.”

Cklamovski heads into the 2024 campaign as one of two Australian head coaches.

While Muscat has departed for Chinese Super League champions Shanghai Port, he has been replaced by Socceroos legend Harry Kewell at Yokohama F.Marinos.

Kewell is the third consecutive Australian coach to lead F.Marinos, highlighting the impact of Aussies on Japanese football since Postecoglou – with a coaching staff including Cklamovski and Arthur Papas – transformed the top tier.

“I’m proud of the work that we’ve all done,” said Cklamovski. “The respect that we’ve got in Japan and across Asia perhaps, has come from the reality of good work. Good people doing good work.

“I think that’s why Japanese football looked at Australian coaches and went, ‘okay, good people, hard working and honest men’. Good at what we do.

“I believe in Aussie coaches. There’s a heap of Aussie coaches, whether that be in the A-Leagues or around. We’re good mate. The world is starting to open their eyes to that which is great for all of us.

“I’m very proud to be an Australian coach but I’m very proud of every Australian coach having a crack and trying to break down those barriers. It’s only the start of maybe that’s going to get strong and stronger. There’s a pool of Aussie coaches in the A-League and around that are very, very good coaches that just need a chance to go do their thing.”