K-League season was a special one for a certain southwestern region as Jeolla Province welcomed the golden championship trophy for the first time ever. No longer can Jeonbuk Motors claim to be the only team on the continent to have won the Asian title without ever winning the domestic prize.
The car metaphor can be driven too far but the Motors were well-oiled from March to December. The team from Jeonju accelerated into top gear quickly, maintained top speed for most of the journey and despite a couple of bumps in the road and slippery patches, the engine was in just as good a condition at the end of the journey as it was at the beginning.
A late goal from Lim Sang-hyub gave Jeonbuk a draw at Gyeongnam on the first day of the season back in March and from then, the team never looked back. Six wins came from the next seven games with the only ‘failure’ a 1-1 tie at the home of Asian champions Pohang Steelers. Seven-time champions Seongnam were thrashed 4-1 and Jeju lost 5-0 at home while the favourites for the title, FC Seoul also came off second best.
Battling it out with Seoul and Pohang for first spot, Jeonbuk ended in identical fashion, collecting 19 points out of a possible 21 in the run-in. Such form enabled the team in green to finish top of the standings at the end of regular season. That didn’t mean the title however as in Korea, there are still championship play-offs to negotiate. They proved no problem as Jeonbuk defeated Seongnam Ilhwa in the final in early December – recording a 3-1 win that kept 37,000 fans warm in chilly temperatures.
There is no doubt as to which player grabbed the headlines. Lee Dong-gook did not have the best of times from 2006 to the start of 2009. ‘The Lion King’ missed the 2006 World Cup through injury, and then moved to England at the start of 2007. Those 18 months in the English Premier League with Middlesbrough didn’t go well and Lee returned to Korea in the second half of 2008. His subsequent short spell with Seongnam did not go well either and he headed to Jeonbuk before the start of the new season.
The 30 year-old may have failed in England’s northeast but he has been a big success in Korea’s southwest with 20 goals coming from Lee’s feet or head in 27 games.
It is great to be here and scoring goals,” he said just before the season ended. “I am enjoying my football and playing with some very good players.”
His words were as accurate as his feet in this case. Lee has the headlines but the supporting cast was impressive. Just like Jeonju’s famous dish of Bi Bim Bap, Jeonbuk’s offence has contained a healthy mix of different ingredients with Lee’s goals providing the kochujang, the hot pepper sauce that gives the dish the kick it needs.
A glance of the list of the players who recorded the most assists during the season reveals that Jeonbuk players occupy the top three spots. Choi Tae-wook and Brazilians Luiz Henrique and Eninho have contributed greatly to Jeonbuk’s success as well as the club’s easy-on-the-eye style of play.
At the back, Kim Sang-sik, jettisoned by Seongnam at the end of last season, was impressive for his new club while goalkeeper Kwon Soon-tae and fellow defender Choi Chul-soon were the model of consistency despite rarely grabbing the headlines
Jeonbuk has never grabbed the league title until now.
Things are changing in Korean football and Jeolla Province now has its seat at the top table of soccer powers in the Land of the Morning Calm.
Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile.com