Nine months earlier I’d watched Jeonbuk kick off their K-League campaign with a home defeat to Chunnam Dragons. At that time it looked as if they might be in for a tough season but it didn‘t work out that way. They’ve been the best team by far in Korea this year and had been unlucky to lose the Champions League final to Al Sadd a month earlier.
The way the Korean League works is that the top six teams at the end of the season have a series of play-offs to determine the champions. Jeonbuk finished top of the table and so went straight into the two-legged final. Ulsan finished sixth and therefore had to get past Seoul, Suwon and Pohang to earn their game with Jeonbuk. The teams had met earlier in the week at Ulsan’s Munsu Stadium where a couple of goals from Eninho had given Jeonbuk a 2-1 lead to bring into the second leg.
Jen had caught an earlier train back to Seoul to avoid frostbite and so I was at this one by myself. I bought a ticket for ten thousand won and got myself some cans of Hite. It wasn’t really the weather for drinking beer but with it being the last game of the season it seemed a bit late to change my regular matchday routine.
I took a seat in the east stand, close to the half-way line. There was quite a party atmosphere with food and drink stalls in the concourse and kids competing for prizes by scoring into an oversized inflatable goal. As the teams were announced Lee Dong Gook got the biggest cheer from the home supporters.
Jeonbuk were on top in the early stages with Luiz breaking up the Ulsan play whenever they looked threatening. After twenty-five minutes Lee Dong Gook was brought down just inside the box. He took the penalty himself and if he had scored it would surely have been game over. The Ulsan keeper dived to his left though and made a decent save to keep his side in it.
We got to half-time without any further incident and as there were big queues for beer I nipped out of the main entrance and bought a couple of cans from a granny outside. I didn’t need a ‘pass out’ and nobody questioned me as I walked back in. It seemed that if you couldn’t afford the ten thousand won ticket price (£5.50), then you could just turn up at half time and watch the second half for free. I’m not sure if it’s officially condoned but I like it. I remember that when the Holgate gates opened ten minutes before the end of matches to let out those who liked to ‘beat the traffic’ there were always kids waiting to come in for the closing stages, a whole second half for free would have been fantastic.
Ten minutes into the second half Ulsan scored. That made the aggregate score two each, but I had no idea what the story was with away goals. I did wonder at that point if Jeonbuk were going to finish the season with nothing. Fortunately for the home side they quickly got the opportunity to restore their advantage when they were awarded their second penalty of the game. Once again Lee Dong Gook picked the ball up, but on this occasion Eninho went over and had a quiet word before taking it off him and calmly slotting home to put Jeonbuk 3-2 ahead on aggregate.
Another ten minutes on and it was all over. Luiz picked up the ball on the right and turned two players before crashing the ball home at the keeper’s near post. It was a fantastic strike and I was up on my feet celebrating with the rest of the supporters. Well, those that weren’t from Ulsan anyway. Luiz was booked for taking his shirt off, but if there was ever a goal that you had a right to celebrate in whatever way you fancied then that was it.
Jeonbuk just ran the clock out in the last twenty minutes, Lee Dong Gook getting a great reception as he made his way to the bench five minutes from time. The crowd was announced as thirty-three thousand, but I’d have estimated it as maybe twenty-two thousand or so. Whilst the East and North stands were pretty full, the West and South were probably only at ten per cent of their capacity.
I hung about for the fireworks and initial celebrations but got away before the trophy presentation as I had a train to catch. A few days later Lee Dong Gook was announced as the K-League MVP for 2011. Together with his Asian Champions League MVP award and his recall to the national team it had been a pretty good season for him again.
It had been a good season for me too. I had watched thirty-three games in Korea at twenty-three different grounds, ranging from internationals to local games between blokes who looked in worse shape than I am. With the game I saw in Hong Kong and the seven in England that’s just one short of a full traditional forty-two match season. Or exactly right for a season’s total when you don’t turn up for Blackburn away after being misled by the Premier League. I’m not still bitter about the three points, honest.
And on that cheery note I’ll wish anyone who stumbles across the blog a Happy New Year. I’m looking forward to a bit of basketball and sub-zero temperature hiking in the weeks until the 2012 fixtures are published and I can start planning next season’s football trips.