A club that finished second from bottom last year commences another season under the guidance of a new coach who has never experienced top flight football previously. An almost equally inexperienced group of players are captained by a veteran who is seemingly past his prime after a brief spell in a foreign league.
That is exactly how the story began in March, when Jeju United kicked off their fifth K-League season since moving to the southern island in 2006. Against all odds, however, the Seogwipo outfit stormed into pole position in the summer on the back of a 19–match unbeaten streak at home, before eventually finishing runners-up behind FC Seoul in the championship play-offs last week.
Park Kyung-Hoon was the man who masterminded the revolution on the south coast, making an impressive debut on the professional stage three years after he failed to guide Korea Republic beyond the group stage at the FIFA U-17 World Cup on home soil. In the mean time, the 49-year-old had been working as a professor at the Department of Football in Jeonju University, where he was waiting for his second chance to come.
“I’ve felt a lot of things through the failure in the past,” Park told the press after his side’s 2-1 defeat at Seoul on Sunday. “Before I came to Jeju [last November], I studied many theories on the game as a professor in Jeonju. And I’m happy to be back as a professional manager to see many things actually happening on the pitch.”
Fast, solid, and beautiful game
Theoretically it is possible to win games of football through tailor-made tactics or long-term strategies. But in reality, how could he transform the outsiders into a formidable side in such a short period of time? His answer to the question is a localised theory that suits the islanders. Dubbed Samdado, or the island of three abundances, Jeju is known to boast three kinds of natural or human resources: wind, rocks and women.
“When I first arrived here I introduced the Samdado football, which was inspired by the speed of wind, the rock solid organisation, and the attractiveness of beautiful women,” Park explained. “And it was the players who understood my idea and got themselves together around captain Kim Eun-Jung, who motivated them to bounce back from second bottom last year to finish second this season.
Indeed, the Jeju skipper was a perfect role model for the rest of the players, many of whom had just arrived before the kick-off of the season. It is fair to say that Kim has been one of the most underestimated forwards in the Korean game, despite being a consistent campaigner over the past 13 years. The 31-year-old joined United after a stint with Chinese outfit Changsha Ginde last year, and the skinny striker simply excelled this season, scoring a career-high 17 goals while setting up 11.
With the help of his inspirational captain, Park could instil the winning mentality to the minds of those who had been accustomed to losing. “At first, when I saw the players in their final three games last season it was clear that they were thinking of themselves as losers and they needed extra motivation,” said Park, a three-time Korean champion with the all-conquering Pohang Steelers in the late 1980s. “The players should know how to enjoy the game because football is an art of creativity, and they shouldn’t be afraid of failure.”
And as long as they keep on enjoying the game regardless of results, there will be plenty to play for in the seasons to come. “I was really happy throughout this year although we narrowly missed out on winning the title in the end. We will definitely try again to be the champions and attract our fans with beautiful football,” Park said.