Seoul brothers: League of Ireland's Korean connection
Daniel McDonnell meets up with the League of Ireland's Korean connection and finds out how their football dream is not quite living up to expectations in Galway and Sligo
THE visitors to Tallaght tonight are a world apart from the Shamrock Rovers side that will collect the League of Ireland trophy in front of their adoring fans.
Few will be paying attention to Galway United, a team that has also had a historic year, but for all the wrong reasons.
The Tribesmen are likely to suffer a record-breaking 23rd-successive defeat of a campaign where they have collected just six points and become the first side at senior level in this country to concede more than 100 goals in one season.
By any standards, it has been a demoralising campaign for a club that was once held up by the FAI as a model, yet faces a fight over the winter to ensure its existence regardless of what happens in next week's promotion/relegation play-off.
Still, Jumbo Brennan's players will board the bus to Dublin today, travelling with hope rather than expectation. For two members of the visiting party, the trip is a part of a longer journey. Jingu Kim hails from the country's capital, Seoul. Yob Son is from Gohung, a town in the South-East of South Korea.
They are strangers in a city which has fallen out of love with its football club. But right now, Galway United is their life. An obvious question stands out. How did two Korean footballers end up thousands of miles away from home, plying their trade with the whipping boys of the League of Ireland?
We meet in Sligo on Wednesday. It's the home of Ny Jung, a Korean businessman who has lived in Ireland for 21 years. He runs a small engineering company and also facilitates links between Irish businesses and operations in his native land. Now, he has a third purpose.
Football has always been his passion and he is a regular visitor to the Showgrounds. He struck up friendships with ex-Sligo bosses Willie McStay and Sean Connor and, last year, he decided to develop his interest into something more. So, he spoke to friends back home to investigate the possibility of using Ireland as a stopping point for Korean footballers seeking to break into the European game.
He concentrated on a training club in the city of Bucheon, which was a home for young footballers seeking to enter the professional ranks. Seven of them arrived in Ireland last January, ostensibly to make an impression on Sligo manager Paul Cook.
Four were deemed good enough to stick around, but Suckbeom Kim opted to go back and complete his military service. The other three were given an opportunity to hang around and impress Cook. On Wednesday, they accompanied Ny to the Clarion Hotel to tell their story.
For Yob Son and Jingu Kim, the story is of a year divided into two parts; the first half in Sligo's 'A' Championship team, the second half spent with Galway after a July move to join Connor.
For Cheolseung Lee, the path has been slightly different. The 25-year-old, from the city of Busan, is determined to make an impact in Sligo and is lining out for junior club Strand Celtic.
"They try to play football on the ground," he explains.
He is the only member of the trio to conduct the entire discussion in English. Ny translates for the other pair who have a minimal command, although Yob, a physical centre-half, just about has enough to get by. Certainly, he understands. And his actions speak louder than words when the chat turns to the experience of tasting defeat on a weekly basis. Enjoying the experience? He laughs in a resigned kind of way.
"In Korea, professional players think about football seven days a week," explains the 23-year-old. "In Galway, most have two jobs. So, it's difficult to find the time to arrange training, or to meet and talk and improve. That's the most difficult part."
The dressing-room has resembled an airport terminal with players coming and going and the manager who brought them there, Connor, then joined the departures. Galway people say that the Koreans are two of their better players, but it's hard to gauge where they stand in the bigger picture given the chaos of their environment.
Jingu, a pacy winger, would like to stay in Ireland for longer, and is hoping that managers from other clubs might have a look at him this evening upon his return from injury. Yob wants to get to the UK by 2013. In more ways than one, they can't afford another year like this one.
Do they like life in Galway? Again, Yob smiles, and answers in English. "So-so," he says. They live in Doughiska, with a "lot of Polish people," 8km outside the city. Neither of them drive. Cash is in short supply.
When they were fixed up with Galway in July, the terms and conditions they signed for were immediately reduced. It left them with no other option but to call their respective families back home. Their parents sent money to keep them afloat. "We cannot survive on the weekly wage," he says.
"After they signed, the club said they would be getting less money," he says. "That is actually unfair. But I told the boys that they had to try and forget about money. Because, if they did well, then next season they would get a chance with another team. I always try to think in the long-term and a good attitude will give you the best chance."
The question is whether toiling in a poor side has given them the platform to find security. Both reckon that Sligo are the best team they have encountered, with Yob speaking of his admiration for Richie Ryan, and Jingu a big admirer of John Russell. Ultimately, they fell short of that level, but Ny stresses they can improve when they grasp the English language.
Yob and Jingu admit that they find it hard to follow the dressing-room chatter. "Sometimes, if the manager is angry, it's tough to understand," says Yob. "Irish people can speak so fast sometimes. But I know that if I speak English better, it will help my performance. I'm a defender, and I need to talk."
Cheolseung, a right-back, is adamant that it's the key to a better life. Unlike the other pair, he won't go home this winter. Instead, he will continue to improve his English. "Communication is very important in football," he says. "It will make me a better player."
They all retain a healthy optimism, and Ny has plans to bring another batch over in January. "We have a better idea of the level of player that is needed now," he declares. They will join Yob, Jingu and Cheolseung on the trial circuit. If there's a contract offer on the table, they are prepared to go anywhere in Ireland for work.
At a time when clubs are slashing budgets, their persistence is admirable. It's no wonder they are so keen to figure against the champions, despite recent injury problems. "Maybe it's our last chance to show people our ability," suggests Yob.
Their motivation for the dead rubber is clear. The Koreans came to Ireland with big ambitions, but they are hardly living the dream. Through adversity, the chase for it will continue.