At England’s North-West Football Awards last autumn, a few eyebrows were raised when the region’s player of the year for 2009/10 was announced as being Bolton Wanderers’ Korean midfielder Lee Chung-Yong.
On closer inspection, Lee had won a hat-trick of club awards: the Player of the Season, the Players’ Player of the Season and the Best Newcomer Awards. Following his performances at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, Liverpool were reportedly preparing a bid.
The former FC Seoul winger had made a massive impact in his debut season, a feat which he has carried over into his second season, setting up eight goals and scoring four in his 35 games in 2010/11 – including a late winner in an FA Cup quarter-final at Birmingham, which took his team to Wembley.
In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, Lee talks about that goal, the semi-final, his former club and the changes to the Korea Republic side since South Africa 2010.
FIFA.com: It’s been almost two years since you made your impressive debut for Bolton. How have you managed to adapt so well to the Premier League in such a short space of time?
Lee Chung-Yong: I don’t know really, maybe I’m just lucky here in Bolton. Everyone at the club, the coaching staff and the players have been very supportive of me and helped me a lot. When the former coach [Gary Megson] stepped down in the middle of my first season I was sorry to see him go, but I just continued to play my game and mingle with the team.
Owen Coyle was appointed after Megson left. What changes has he brought about?
We were a good team but under him we’re getting better, going in the right direction. We were struggling to avoid relegation last year and now we’re going to finish the season in the top half of the table. After Owen arrived, the atmosphere in the dressing room and the training ground changed, along with almost everything on and off the pitch.
And Bolton were 90 minutes away from the FA Cup final as well. The entire cup run must have been a fantastic experience for you.
I couldn’t believe I scored the goal that took us to the semi-final against Stoke City at Wembley. It was a dramatic victory [in the quarter-final] and we grabbed a rare chance to play on such a big stage – probably the biggest ever in my professional career. But we inexplicably lost, 5-0. We conceded goals too easily and early in the game and we could never get back into it, while they converted their chances. Just like that. It was certainly a big learning curve.
You’ve lost four of your five matches since then. Would you say the team has struggled to put their FA Cup defeat behind them?
No, I don’t think so. The game after the semi-final we beat Arsenal 2-1 at home. Although we’re currently on a losing streak, we’re trying to put 100 per cent into every game we play, like we have been doing all season long.
So do you think this has been a good season for both you and the club?
Yes, I do. The team have become a unit, not just a bunch of individuals, and we’ve also become a resilient side. We never give up under any circumstances and you may have seen us come back from behind to win quite a few times. Personally, I’m also satisfied because I could finish the season without any serious injury.
At Seoul, you were the No27 – and you’re the No27 at Bolton. Are you feeling as at home in Bolton as you did in Seoul?
Well, the number doesn’t have any special meaning but I wanted to stick to it because for continuity really. Other than that, everything is different – Bolton is a quiet and nice town to live in and I can focus solely on playing football.
How did you feel when you saw FC Seoul win the championship last year, the season after you left?
Actually, I was really happy for them because they’re my hometown club. But at the same time I felt sorry because Seoul finished runners-up after I’d just left for England in 2009. I really wanted the team to finish as champions in that year too.
In Korea Republic’s national team, your role is getting more important after former captain Park Ji-Sung retired from international football. How are the Taeguk Warriors transforming without the veterans?
It’s true that the lads relied heavily on Ji-Sung and [Lee] Young-Pyo. Their presence itself was a huge advantage for us, especially on the big stages like the FIFA World Cup in South Africa and the AFC Asian Cup in Qatar. Now that they’re gone, we’re still missing them and I feel like we’ve become a little bit ‘lighter’ than what we used to be. At the moment it would be good to have them back, but we have to face the reality and move on.
So, are you feeling the pressure ahead of the qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil?
Not at all. We’re getting better and better, and it’s only a matter of time that we’ll become a stronger side. We started from scratch when we played a goalless draw with Turkey in February, but we were a much better side when we beat Honduras 4-0 in March. We’re on the right track and if we go on like this, not feeling the pressure but doing our best with the right attitude, we’ll be able to achieve our goals.