The K-league Kilt has been nagging me to write a review of Suwon FC’s season and my first season as a follower of a Korean team. In truth, I’ve sat down to start this on numerous occasions but as my dearly departed Granny used to say “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” So here ends the Suwon FC season review.
No, let’s give this a go. It won’t be pretty but it may be therapeutic. Back in late February, many “experts” were picking Suwon FC for automatic promotion or at the very least to make the playoffs. In my naivety, I too may have been swept away in a sea of optimism. How wrong we were. In a pre-season podcast chat with the Kilt, I said I felt Suwon FC may hold their own in the lower reaches of the Scottish Premier League. A season later, I’m not sure they’d do too well in the Scottish First Division.
Let’s deal with the cast iron facts first. Suwon FC played 36 league games, won 13, drew 3, and lost 20. Scored 29, conceded 46. Finished seventh, 3 points clear of Bucheon and Ansan, 5 clear of E-Land. Suwon FC lost more games than any other team in the league (only Jeonnam in K1 lost more – 22 – but they did play 2 more games) and scored the fewest goals. It was, quite frankly, a grim season. Free-flowing football was at a premium and 8 of the 13 wins were 1-0 slogs. Entertaining it wasn’t.
Although it was his first full season and a step up from previously coaching Suwon Samsung U18s, Kim Dae-eui actually took over as manager/head coach at the end of the 2017 season overseeing a 1-0 loss to Busan and a 4-0 win over Anyang. He had time to bring in and work with players but it was hard to identify exactly what his favoured gameplan was. All season he chopped and changed players and formation but at no point could you clearly identify a style that Suwon FC were trying to play. Some of that may be attributed to the revolving door at “Castle Park”. My estimate is nine new players arrived in January and a further nine in July. Injuries to key players hampered Kim but his lack of conviction in formation or with regard to players meant players rarely got the chance to build rapport on the field.
The most damning statistic for Kim is that from the many occasions Suwon FC fell behind in a match, only once did they fight back to get anything from the match – a 1-1 home draw with Gwangju. One point all season after falling behind a match!! It would seem Kim was unable to adapt and change the flow of a game either through tactics, substitutions or motivation. Early in the season, the fans turned against him but a fans forum followed by a six match unbeaten run in summer turned that round. The late season collapse was met more with apathy than anger which is even more worrying in my opinion.
Newspaper reports indicate that Kim will be in charge when the new season starts so we can only hope he has learned plenty of lessons from this season.
What about the players? To be honest, very few should be happy with their season. Fans voted goalkeeper Kim Da-sol their player of the season. This was in a team that lost 20 matches!!! Then again having scored only 29 times in 36 matches and being held goalless in 15 of them, it would be hard to imagine a forward or creative player winning the award.
It’s hard to argue with the choice. One monumental howler in Anyang aside, Kim did very little wrong and had a level of consistency missing in most of his teammates. Some had good games here or there but none sustained it for a period of time. I wish I could go on and give a list of players who shone and showed potential but I’d be stretching the truth.
A name that would make that list is defender Cho Yu-min. Of the entire squad, he may be the only one happy with 2018. He was a member of Korea’s U23 Asian Games winning squad and is now exempt from military service. Cho is undoubtedly the most valuable asset in the squad and, while I believe his form dipped after the Asian games, I wouldn’t be surprised if he made a move to a K1 team during the winter break. A talented 22 year old defender with military exemption must surely be tempting to some of them.
Five overseas players represented Suwon FC throughout the season. Australian defender Adrian Leijer had a season blighted by injury managing just 9 appearances before his season was cut short by injury during a 1-0 win at Jamsil on the last day of June. Brazilians Alex Lima, Alex Bruno and Matheus Alves were onboard at the start of the season with Alves heading to Thailand and another Brazilian, Fernando Viana, coming in during the summer transfer window. Alex Lima came from MLS side Houston Dynamo and his youtube clips were cause for optimism but in all honesty, it never quite happened for him. There were flashes of brilliance but it was a largely disappointing season. Viana finished as top goalscorer with 6 goals in his 15 appearances. He did well but often looked exasperated with the midfielders and wide players. Bruno and Alves never got going. Bruno looked like Suwon FC’s most direct player but couldn’t sustain a run in the team. Alves never cut it. He went on to score a few in Thailand. It seems none of the Brazilians will be around in 2019. The apparently club wanted Alex Lima to stay but couldn’t reach a deal.
The signing of Kim Dong-chan was considered a masterstroke. His reputation at this level was sky high from his time at Daejeon but he too was blighted by injuries and at no stage in the season did he look fit. Kim managed one goal, in the season opener, from nine appearances. I was actually surprised to find out he played in nine matches. I realize I’m in no position to be commenting on anyone’s physical condition but while I’m here I must say that I thought very few of the squad looked to be in great shape. In many games they were noticeably “bigger” than their opponents.
There must have been some positives, right? The biggest personal positive was simply the feeling of being a match-going fan again. While the matchday experience is very different from back home, the anticipation is the same. Planning your weekend around football, organizing travel, seeing familiar faces at grounds, thinking “could this be the day it clicks?” brought back memories of long ago. Having previously observed the K-League from a distance, only attending a few random games a season, I must admit that it was great to invest in a team and get the pre-match buzz of following your team not to mention the highs of wins. With the K2 being Gyeonggi-do centric I think I made it to 25 of the 36 games. The away matches to Busan, Gwangju and Daejeon were beyond me and for some reason I never made it to Asan but most others I attended.
The FA Cup match away to Ulsan was another highlight. The result wasn’t ideal (a 1-0 defeat) but it was a bit of an adventure going on the official supporters bus to Ulsan on a Wednesday afternoon and arriving back in Suwon around 2 on Thursday morning. I didn’t strike up any close friendships but there was an unspoken sense of being in something together.
On the field, the statistics at the top suggest highlights were few and far between. Viana’s free kick winner in Ansan, and the togetherness of fans and players after that match, remains in the memory but the 3-2 win at home to Daejeon really stands out. Baek Sung-dong’s injury time winner broke a six-match losing run and sparked joyous scenes in the temporary stand and reignited the playoff dream for a short time. And of course, there was the time my slick pre-match dance moves won me a 100,000won voucher for a local restaurant.
So what did I learn in my first full season following a K-League team? Back in my first post I explained that I chose to follow Suwon FC because my youngest son had signed for their youth team. So while I had committed to following them, I wasn’t really sure how invested I’d get but ultimately I ended up all in. As a Celtic fan, I’ve become used to success and pretty attractive football in recent years. Supporting Suwon FC was a very different experience. It quickly became clear that free-flowing football and entertaining wins were not going to be common occurrences. It took time to adjust to the level of K2 and to the fact that my team were not going to win most weekends. Maybe my rather negative review above suggests I haven’t fully adjusted yet!!! No doubt I still lost my rag, got frustrated and turned the air blue with my language at times but as the season wore on I became more accepting of the circumstances and limitations of the team and individuals. The cliché or what I previously thought of as a cliché, that it was OK as long as the team “did their best” became more appropriate. I still want to win every game and I still expect(ed) better to be honest but there is a defiant element to my support of Suwon FC and ending all K-League related tweets with #wearesuwonfc.
We get ready to go again next season.