Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Half Time Heroes Q & A with Kofi Danning

In early 2009 a raw 18-year old called Kofi Danning came off the bench for Sydney FC and playing in his home debut scored the winning goal against the Wellington Phoenix . The A League season four was coming to an end and the goal and subsequent celebration in front of the Cove ensured that a cult following had began

The wider Australian football community now also knew who Kofi was. Not just for his skill and composure in scoring that goal but the big smile that he had on his face- he was not a sour faced footballer.

Kofi ended the year with another goal and was in the winning side as the Sydney FC youth team won the inaugural Youth League Grand Final. Kofi’s second season began where he finished it.

Creating more headlines.

Kofi impressed against the Fury as he set up one goal and scored the second, an undoubted screamer showing some deft dribbling skills and a powerful shot. Unfortunately, in late December 2009 playing a youth league match Kofi injured his right knee which ruled him out for the season. Now fully fit, and ready to play football again Kofi spoke to HTH in an exclusive interview.

Half Time Heroes: Hey Kofi, how are you feeling? Would you say you are back to full fitness?
Kofi Danning: Yeah I would say I’m back to full fitness. I feel good, I feel strong, I feel confident, all the positives are coming back , I’ve been doing a lot of rehab in the pre-season , it just made everything easier and the coach is right behind me.

HTH: You come from the second biggest city in Ghana, Kumasi which has a proud football history. It has produced its fair share of national greats like Tony Yeboah (ex Leeds, Hamburg), Tony Baffoe (ex Black Stars and many German clubs) and Samuel Osei Kuffour (ex Bayern). First off, what was it like growing up and playing football as a young kid in Kumasi?
KD: It was great growing up in Ghana, probably one of the most exciting times of my childhood. I had a very happy childhood. I remember everyday just playing football. I would come home from school; first thing I’d do was chuck my bag down, run and get my soccer ball and go kick it, play with the kids on the streets and do tricks. I just wanted to be like my heroes.

HTH: So did you miss a lot of school playing football. Were you a good kid?
KD:Yeah I was a good kid, cause I knew I’d get in trouble if I missed school, I knew I wouldn’t have my soccer ball around me anymore, I knew if I’d go home it would be somewhere hidden away.

HTH: I read somewhere that your grandmother would threaten you with a stick - it sounds like my upbringing!
KD: Yeah, my grandmother used to scare me a little, so I had to be good in order to do what I wanted.

HTH: Your mother came out to Australia first and you lived with your grandmother until you came to Australia aged seven? What was it like coming to Australia at such a young age with a new country and culture?
KD: It was a very different experience. I have never been to a place that was so multicultural - everything was so different compared to Ghana. People are just so different here, it was kind of a surprise,  it felt like I was in another world.

HTH: How long did it take for you to get comfortable in your surroundings?
KD: Probably about three years because when I first got here I couldn’t speak much English. All I knew was “thank you” and “hello” and that’s about it. When I was in Canberra I had to do ESL classes, because English was a second language. I did that for three years and all through schooling, and after five years I could speak English very well

HTH: What was your support network like - you said your mother was here with you?
KD: I had my uncle and his family was here, my mum basically came because my uncle was here. My uncle supported us until we got on to our feet. And also my stepdad was with my mum and they got married about four years ago, and he’s been really good for us as well. I had cousins here and everything was there from the beginning.

HTH: You played at the under 20 World Cup in Egypt after a long and drawn out case with FIFA. Australia lost all three games and in an interview with FIFA you said “ I just don’t think we’ve had that same attitude that ‘Yeah, we’re going to do whatever it takes to win this game’”. The question is, a winning mentality is usually one of Australia’s strengths, so  did the players find it hard to adapt to the Dutch mentality in that tournament, as there was lots of talk about a new playing system?
KD: I don’t think we found it hard at all, I just think we found it hard with each other. Knowing what each other was going to do, trusting each other, and that is the biggest thing in a team environment. If you don’t trust each other and if you don’t want to work for each other, it’s not going to work. No matter what the coach says, no matter what anyone says, critics whatever, if the team doesn’t form together and work as unit everthing is going to fall apart.

HTH: Why do you think the team didn’t gel in Egypt?
KD: I think maybe the preparation towards the World Cup, there was a structured team and in that team throughout the qualification there wasn’t that many changes. And when the squad for the World Cup was chosen there was such a big change, a lot of players didn’t expect to be chosen and other players wanted other players in the team.  When the squad was chosen it was a big shock. I think that maybe that might have been because of differences in the team, but I don’t know, that that is just how I felt.

HTH: You have already reached cult status with the Sydney FC supporters group ( The Cove) and a lot of people have predicated big things for you what expectations have you set for yourself and how do you cope with those expectations especially the outside influence of media, fans and coaches? And don’t say I take it a day a time....(hehehe)
KD: I just try and set myself goals.  I set myself goals when I first signed with Sydney FC youth. My goal was to make the under 20’s team and play in the World Cup and also score goals for Sydney FC and start games for Sydney. I did all that, I didn’t want to get injured, and it’s just something that happens - I achieved all those goals. I have set myself new goals to be in the Olyroos, hopefully get a cap for the Socceroos if I keep playing well. Hopefully go overseas to Europe. But that won’t happen if I don’t get match time and keep improving as a player and keep learning.

HTH: I remember the first interview after your debut senior game for Sydney FC where you scored.  You gave an interview similar to Jeff Fenech infamous “I love you’s all”. How good must it be to have that relationship with the fans? When you play at home hearing the fans chant your name and have the crowd on your side it must be a good feeling?
KD: It’s the best feeling in the world. I mean they come to watch us play, I know how they feel because when I watch the European players play I’m a fan, I just love what they do and you appreciate when someone comes up to you and says “you are my favourite player” or “I really like watching you play” because they go out of their way, and when we go out of our way to score goals and to clap them and stuff like that, they love it and I just like showing that appreciation back to them.

HTH: What is your favourite position to play and what skill do you work on the most? 
KD: My favourite position to play is striker. I think I probably work on my speed and dribbling skills the most because I like to take players on and create opportunities, for us to be dangerous in attacking third.

HTH:When you read about Maradona or Tim Cahill as a kid there is a common theme where they always had the ball with them? Did you sleep with the football as a young child?
KD: I always had the ball with me. I always dreamt about soccer things, Id have dreams where I would run the whole field and beat players and score and then I’d wake up and get my soccer ball and just go train and practise what happened in the dream.

HTH: Your junior coach Mal Barac took responsibility for driving you  from Canberra to Sydney and back for training with the Sydney youth team. How important is it for a young player to have that support?
KD: It’s very important. Mal was my junior coach in Canberra he helped me a lot to develop as a player. As a young kid, if you have someone to always help and push you along it makes a big difference because you can get side tracked. And it’s not good when you do so - he was there for me  and help me change the way as I grew up. I felt very confident having him around and I still do.

HTH: Who else has aided your football education? Another player or coach?
KD: The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) helped me a lot. When I was at the institute I learnt a lot of things, I became more confident, I think I grew as a player, coming through the youth league and training with the first grade boys like John Aloisi and Steve Corica I learnt a lot off them, they’ve taught me a lot of things, so I’m getting all this information and trying to put in myself and try and become a better player.

HTH: When was the moment you realised that you could do something with football - when did you think “I can make a career out of this”?
KD: I think when I started playing youth league for Sydney FC.  Because I knew I wasn’t that far away from being in the first squad, I came to training sessions where they all would be there (the first team) together in a group talking, and I had a chance to watch them, to be that close to them, you know you have a chance, and you know if you keep going you will get a chance. I got that chance, and I guess I took it and everything went on from there.

HTH: A lot of young African immigrants are showing up in the A-League and in Australia’s youth system. Tell us what is it like being an African Australian?
KD: I think it’s great, I love Australian culture; I think at the start it’s hard to accept it. I had trouble accepting it, I think once you accept it, you learn to love it because you feel a part of it and things just become different, if you don’t accept it its just going to become harder for you. I just love it now being an Aussie.

HTH: Got any advice for young kids who want to make it in the A-League and in football generally?
KD: I think kids shouldn’t put too much pressure on themselves to practise every day and do everything perfect like the professionals do. I think they should just have fun and not put too much pressure on themselves. Because if they do, their game changes and things like that. I found that it happened to me when I put too much pressure on myself - I wasn’t myself, I think for them to be themselves and have fun they will get the chance to get noticed, just keep doing what they are doing.

HTH: How do you relieve that pressure?
KD: By doing things that don’t even involve football, going out with your friends to the movies stuff like that, going somewhere that makes you humble and peaceful I think gets focus off what you want to do with football and when you come back you are a at stage where you go ohhh I missed it that much I want to play and you forget all about the pressures.

HTH: So one day you score a goal and your name is the papers, everyone is talking about you and and it’s back to training, your coach makes you run laps or whatever. So would you say it’s a learning experience juggling  all that?
KD: Definitely it’s a learning experience, it’s what you want the most out of yourself and I think, once you figure that out everything becomes a lot easier.

HTH:  Who is the hardest opponent you faced?
KD: The hardest opponent I have faced has probably been Danny Tiatto. I’ve heard he has retired now so it’s a bit easier for me to play. I’ve never played against a player who was so aggressive and so threatening.

HTH: You probably have never seen studs so close before?
KD: Yeah that’s right I have never seen studs so close. I think fear was in my mind when he was there. But I’ve got past that stage where I’m scared of people and just proving to them that I’m not scared. Now I want to make them scared of me.

HTH: A-League players that have caught your eye?
KD: I think the players we have got here are very talented; Terry Mcflynn is a very good player, Alex Brosque is the backbone of Sydney FC and Mark Bridge, Nicky Carle is brilliant on the ball. And when I think of our team, the champions of last year, I think I can learn off those players and be like them. Those boys I look up to.

Kofi’s Favourites:

Movie: Cool Running’s, because it’s so funny, just pointless.
Band/Music: I love Akon. I’m a Hip Hop man I also like Rock music too like the Red Hot Chilli Peppers.
Actor: I like Hugh Jackman
Actress: I would say Jessica Alba but she’s overrated now. But that’s a hard one too many.
Food: I love Italian food, and different types of ethnic food. I grew up with ethnic food and I love African food.
TV Programme: I watch a lot of TV, like Family Guy, I love the Simpsons, I love shows that make me laugh I have a very good sense of humour.
Your number one relaxation activity is?  Sleeping, I love sleeping, sleeping is amazing.

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