The regular season in the second tier National League is over and we are into the play-offs. It’s a fairly straightforward system with the teams finishing third to sixth playing two semi-finals and then a final to determine which of them meets the second placed team. The winner of that game earns the right to play the club that finished top of the league.
Incheon Korail had emerged victorious from the teams in third to sixth and their reward was an away tie with Ulsan Mipo Dockyard Dolphins. If that name isn’t long enough I think there’s a Hyundai sneaked somewhere into it as well.
The National League Play-off Semi Final wasn’t the only event going on in Ulsan that weekend, K-League team Ulsan Horangi were taking on Saudi team Al–Ahli in the Champions League Final that evening, whilst basketball team Mobis Phoebus had a home fixture the following day. With all that going on Jen and I decided to make a weekend of it and we caught the KTX from Seoul on the Saturday morning.
It’s an impressively quick two hour fifteen minute journey to Ulsan, impressive that is until you realise just how far out of town the new KTX station is. It’s not much different to those airports that try and trade off the name of somewhere else, London Luton for example, whilst I’m sure Ryanair will have a few even further away than that.
We took a half hour taxi ride into the city centre, although to be fair, there were a few buses waiting outside of the station covering a variety of destinations. A quick lunch of Dak Galbi (which seems to have less potato in it every time I have it) and it was time for me to leave Jen to her indoor stuff and head off to the match. She put me in a taxi and asked the driver (in Korean) to take me to Ulsan Sports Complex Stadium. For good measure she let him know that this was not the Munsu World Cup Stadium and I then made a point of showing him the stadium on a map of Ulsan.
Of course you know what happened next. He grinned, nodded, muttered “Soccer Stadium“ a couple of times and set off for the Munsu World Cup Stadium. I knew what he had done almost instantly as I’d walked to that ground on a previous visit to Ulsan. Every time we stopped at some lights I’d show him the map and point out the correct stadium, highlighting that it was north of the river and we weren’t. He just kept grinning and driving.
As the signs for Munsu became more frequent I was reduced to pointing at them and doing that crossed armed gesture. Eventually it dawned on him that something was amiss and he stopped to ask the opinion of a couple of small children. I showed them the map and they told him where he was supposed to be going. Twenty minutes later than we should have done we pulled up outside of the Ulsan Sports Complex Stadium with him still grinning, nodding and muttering “Soccer Stadium“ to no-one in particular.
Once inside the big surprise was that the away fans outnumbered the home. Korail had brought five hundred employees on a team-building trip and they had set up camp in the front rows of the stand opposite the tunnel.
Not only did the Korail employees all have inflatable sticks to bang together, they had cheerleaders to show them how it should be done. The couple of dozen home ’ultras’ were shunted to the far-end of the stand where they consoled themselves with some decent stocks of soju.
It was a good game. Ulsan took the lead mid-way through the first half when Kim Byung Oh finished a well-worked move. The home side held the advantage until ten minutes from time when Korail’s Lee Seung Hwan curled a free-kick from outside of the box off the post and into the far corner.
As extra-time loomed Korail then managed to sneak a winner with a Lee Geun Won header.
The home side weren’t the most gracious of losers and despite their coach having been sent to the stand for giving out a bit too much lip, he was back on the pitch at the end leading the protests.
Understandably the visitors were in a happier frame of mind and they celebrated with their fans, a lot of whom I suspect were seeing Korail play for the first time. Or possibly seeing any football match for the first time.
The result meant that Ulsan’s season was over whilst Korail progressed to a two-legged final with Goyang KB.