Welcome to a continuation on the regular series on The 94th Minute, called “Starting XI”. This is where I ask various people, who are fans of football, a number of questions to get to know them better! The majority of the questions will differ for each person, but the final question will always be:
“Who would be in your all-time, favourite starting XI?”
This is a question where anyone can be put into their starting eleven, whether they are famous footballers, football legends, past or unknown players who had an impact on their childhood, or even players they have played with or coached. Anyone is acceptable in their XI providing they give a reason for their inclusion!
The twenty-fifth instalment of the series is with K League United‘s associate editor and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors correspondent, Matthew Binns. Based in South Korea, he is a Jeonbuk Motors and Manchester City supporter – so plenty of league championships have been celebrated by him in the past couple of years! I wanted to know how he first got involved with KLU, why he chose Jeonbuk as his Korean team and how he thought they got on with Jose Morais last year, and finally his all-time, favourite eleven players.
Q. Thanks very much for taking part in Starting XI! Firstly, could you give the readers some information on how you first got involved with K League United?
I arrived in Korea as an English teacher towards the end of 2014 and, having considered writing a travel blog to pass the time but quickly coming to the conclusion that it wasn’t quite my thing, I set up a small blog about local football in Korea and my adventures in coming to grips with it. At the same time, K League United founder Ryan Walters noticed and was recruiting writers. Unfortunately, as a Jeonbuk fan, I wanted to write predominantly about Jeonbuk but the position was already filled. Then, come the end of 2015, the previous Jeonbuk writer (and founder of the Jeonbuk foreign supporters group ‘Los Cruzados Verdes’) Lex Nande moved on from writing and Ryan got back in touch. I took over covering the team at the start of 2016 in what turned out to be a mammoth season both on and off the pitch, and I’ve been hooked and heavily involved in the site since.
Q. How did you get involved in supporting Jeonbuk Motors, and why did you choose them as your Korean team?
Simply as it was my local team. I arrived in Jeonju to work and started watching the nearest side to where I lived. Back then, Jeonbuk were fighting for their first title in three seasons and I happened to turn up for the final run-in. I had actually researched the team by playing FIFA the preceding summer after I knew where I was being sent. All I knew is that on FIFA 2014, Lee Dong-gook was a goal machine and was one of the reasons why I eventually got his name on the back of my first Jeonbuk shirt.
Anyway, I would go to watch the matches and through watching the matches I would make friends and help settle myself in a foreign country. Football is one of those great levellers where, it doesn’t matter where you’re from, if you wear the same shirt you’re part of that group. It did not take long before I would be sitting with the Ultras each week and learning my way through songs. Even though I don’t live in Jeonju anymore, they are still very much my side and I travel down whenever I can.
Q. How did you think Jeonbuk’s season has gone last year? Has Jose Morais impressed you as manager?
It was a transitional season is probably the fairest summary. I do not think this team has been as good as recent iterations, but changing manager in a season where a challenger in Ulsan Hyundai was coming to the fore was always going to be difficult. Still, they did eventually claim the title and the manager must be given credit for keeping this team in contention all the way until the end. I still think the manager has his flaws, and I am concerned about Jeonbuk’s constant fouling and on-field prickliness, but he has claimed the title so he has earned the right to continue developing this team in the way he wants, whether that proves to be the right or wrong decision.
Q. How has the K League changed from when you started watching it, to now? Has the standard of the league improved?
I’d like to think so. In recent years we’ve seen traditional heavy hitters Suwon Samsung Bluewings and FC Seoul falter through lack of investment or managerial decisions which has allowed for the rise of some well-run and likeable citizen-owned clubs such as Daegu FC to become real threats. The progress of Ulsan Hyundai has also been admirable and I am still somewhat shocked that they were unable to break Jeonbuk’s dominance at the end of last season. With further investment, we should see them to continue to rise and be a threat for the seasons to come.
Q. If you could make any potential improvements to the K League, what would they be and why?
I think it has been done to death, but appropriately sized stadiums. Less empty seats create an atmosphere and it also creates demand. This season has season attendances rise significantly, party due to a more exciting product on the pitch, but also due to stadium adjustments whether it be a completely new ground like at Daegu or temporary stands that bring the fans closer to the pitch like at Anyang.
Q. If any of the readers wanted to come to South Korea to watch some K League action, where would you say are the best places or teams to watch football?
Jeonbuk is the obvious choice for me as they are one of the best-run clubs in the country and have exciting international talent to match with a strong fanbase. That said, it is not necessarily the best day out in the league so I would perhaps also opt for a team like Incheon United who boast one of the best stadiums I have ever seen. You would be best to time your visit for the end of the season as that is when Incheon really come to life, turning avoiding relegation into an art form on an annual basis.
Q. Is there anyone in Jeonbuk, the K League, or South Korea in general, that you think people should keep an eye out for – who are the next big stars from Korea?
Unfortunately, Jeonbuk’s last two biggest stars have left in the last 18 months; Lee Jae-sung and Kim Min-jae. Lee was an exciting attacking midfielder and winner of both the Young Player of the Year (2015) and Player of the Year (2017) during his stint at the club. He now plays for Holstein Kiel in the 2.Bundesliga and doing quite well be all accounts. Kim Min-jae is a young yet powerful centre-back that left the club at the start of the 2019 season in a big-money move to Chinese Super League side Beijing Guoan. However, he has recently been attracting rumoured interest from Watford in the EPL so he may well be rocking up on British shores in the future.
With Korea recently winning the AFC U23 Championships, however, largely thanks to K League talent, the future looks bright for Korea at the moment. A number of stars in that squad came to the fore and I’d expect them to be around the senior national team setup come the 2022 World Cup. Two of my picks were Busan IPark’s (and K League 2 MVP) Lee Dong-jun as well as Daegu FC’s Kim Dae-won.
Q. What has been the best match or moment that you have encountered since watching games in Korea?
For me personally, it was the AFC Champions League final in 2016. As mentioned, it was my first season covering the league, but domestically Jeonbuk had been making headlines for the right and wrong reasons. They went the first 33 games unbeaten and boasted the best midfield in the league with Leonardo, Ricardo Lopes, Kim Bo-kyung and Lee Jae-sung. However, it was also the season where they were investigated and eventually found guilty for bribery back in 2013, resulting in a nine-point deduction in Round 32 and bringing the title race back into contention, a title race they would lose at home on the last day to FC Seoul.
Come the final then, there were a lot of wounds to nurse within the fanbase who had felt somewhat betrayed. We were facing a very good Al Ain side with a central midfielder who was the darling of the competition that year, Omar Abdulrahman. Much was made about how he was going to be the difference. However, Jeonbuk’s manager Choi Kang-hee opted to field our right back Choi Chul-soon as a defensive midfielder for that game with a remit to kick the competition’s poster boy for 180 minutes. Some say that to this day, Choi Chul-soon still heads over to the Middle East in his downtime just to continue marking him.
Lots of heroes were made across those legs, but in the home leg in particular was Leonardo. He was already loved at the club, but he ascended to legendary status with an equalising penalty and also one of the best goals I have ever witnessed live (note: alcohol had been consumed), lashing in a shot from 25 yards to give Jeonbuk the advantage. I was genuinely emotional that evening as, even though there was still a second leg to play, it felt like we had one hand on the cup. As a club that had helped me find my place as a foreigner in a new country, and having intensely followed them in such a draining season, that moment stood out for me a lot.
It also happened to be the same match when I first met Paul Neat and the second I had seen Ryan, along with a number of other writers and people who had supported, with us filming our first live videos at that match. I don’t think I have made a prediction video that has been that accurate since!
Q. Switching to England briefly, how do you think Man City’s season is going so far? Are you still in support of the Pep Revolution?
Well, I think it is safe to say we may need more than a ‘Gerrard slip’ to get City back into the title race. This Liverpool team have been something else admittedly while City have struggled slightly, especially with the injuries to Aymeric Laporte and Leroy Sané early on. I would imagine them now to finish the season strong but attention will surely turn to the cups, particularly the Champions League. With the league gone, there’s also an opportunity to field some more academy products on the domestic front to keep the first eleven fit for European commitments. It’s not a great season compared to the last two admittedly, but when your team is in contention for any silverware you should always savour it. I still fully support Pep and the brand of football he plays. I hope he will continue at the helm for longer.
Q. Finally, who would be in your all-time, favourite starting XI and the reasons for your picks?
I initially was going to justify a team of Kim Shin-wooks but I should try to do this properly. I have tried to choose players that I have seen in the flesh, but also left a lasting impression on me. With that in mind, I have opted for my favourite players from the sides I support to keep it simple.
First of all honourable mentions must go to Shaun Goater, Paul Dickov, Ricardo Lopes, Yaya Toure, Sylvain Distin, Kim Shin-wook and a plethora of others that I wanted to squeeze in here but couldn’t.
Goalkeeper: Kwoun Sun-tae
Is he better than Joe Hart or Ederson? No. Would he put on an outfield shirt a la David James and wander up front in search of UEFA qualification in injury time? Well, maybe if asked. I chose him though partly for his heroics in the aforementioned ACL final, but also he was the captain of that side and meant everything to the fans. His inclusion will also annoy Suwon fans greatly so it is difficult to resist.
Left-back: Kim Jin-su
Mostly because of a song our foreign fan group had cobbled together during a weekend away trip to Jeonnam (to the tune of “Uptown Girl” since you ask) and the subsequent memories of what was a hilarious trip, but in the 2017 season he was sublime for Jeonbuk. He is also very much a player you enjoy having on your side, but despise if he is against you due to his penchant for on-field confrontation and a hard tackle or two.
Centre-back: Vincent Kompany
Not sure I’d even need to explain this one. A leader of the post-investment era at City, a terrific centre-back and also a genuinely good guy with his work off the pitch. I currently have a framed picture next to my TV of his final goal celebrations for City when he scored a thunderbastard against Leicester, mostly because my Dad is in the front row going mental, but also that it was one heck of a strike that finally tipped the 2018/19 title race back into City’s favour. His goal against United in the penultimate game of the 2011/12 season also stands out significantly in my mind.
Centre-back: Richard Dunne
Okay, so it was either him or Kim Min-jae but when you’re trying to pick a beast of a defender, you have to choose the original. Dunney was a fan-favourite at City, regularly voted as the club’s player of the year. While Kim is a fantastic defender, he still needs time to reach this level of legendary status. That, and a few more own goals.
Right-back: Micah Richards
This again was difficult as I feel I am betraying Pablo Zabaleta but Richards was a City youth product that came through when the team were somewhat stagnating. His debut goal was a late equaliser against Villa in the fourth round of the FA Cup during my 18th birthday celebrations. Sadly, partly through injury and competition for places, he never fully realised his potential but I always felt he was destined for great things and was someone I got fully behind as seemed very likeable and had a passion for the team.
Left wing: Leonardo
“His name is Leo and he dances in Sangam!”
Probably one of Jeonbuk’s all-time greatest foreign imports and was vital in turning the 2016 Champions League final around. There seemed to be an area of the pitch, just to the left outside the penalty box, where he had mastered curling the ball into the top corner from. You’d almost hear the sharp intake of breath when you saw him unmarked there as it felt like he’d always score.
Central midfield: David Silva
Some say he is the English Premier League’s equivalent to Daegu FC’s Cesinha. All I know is that he is one of the most naturally gifted talents with a football at his feet that I have bared witness to. Nicknamed ‘El Mago’ or ‘Merlin’, the sorcery he could conjure up to crumble defensives is truly extraordinary.
Central midfield: Lee Jae-sung
Okay, this is where it gets tricky as this should be Yaya Toure. However, one of the first players that caught my eye when I first went to see Jeonbuk was this talent. It was immediately clear he was too good for the K League, and Jeonbuk have never been as devastating to the same effect since he left for Europe in mid-2018. Witnessing him when you knew little knowledge of Asian football made you feel like you had stumbled on a hidden gem, and that you’d hope no one else was watching as they may come along and steal him. Many of the best Jeonbuk memories somehow involved him and, even though he has not quite hit the heights first envisaged, I still maintain he is one of Korea’s most naturally gifted players in the current setup.
Right wing: Shaun Wright-Phillips
One of the first transfers out of my club to truly feel like I had been punched in the stomach. His £21 million pound move to Chelsea in the summer of 2005 threatened to derail a family holiday I was on in Portugal, with my Dad, brother and myself left gutted at his departure but, understanding the financial difficulties City were facing at the time, knew it was necessary.
At the time, he was City’s most-gifted player and just seemed to improve season-upon-season, going on mazy runs and tormenting defences. Coincidentally, the two moments that stand out for me are from the 2003/2004 season where City fought the spectre of relegation. The first was the equaliser against Tottenham in the FA Cup fourth round, where a ten-man City (betrayed by Joey Barton’s inability to avoid an argument) fought back from three goals down to snatch it. He was offside admittedly, but I’d have tried to convince you otherwise at the time. The second moment being the fourth goal in a 4-1 demolition of United in the first derby at the then-named The City of Manchester Stadium where he looked as if he was going to collapse after as he ran himself into the ground for the entire ninety for a desperately needed three points (and also bragging rights).
Forward: Lee Dong-gook
The man that time fears. How could I not include the nearly 41-year-old? Lee Dong-gook (aka ‘The Lion King’) proves age is merely a number with strong scoring stats season upon season for Jeonbuk. He was the first K League player I knew due to my time researching the club on FIFA and Football Manager, and the first name I had printed on the back of my Jeonbuk shirt. He also highly irritates Suwon fans which also seems to be a massive factor when I wrote this list.
While he has undoubtedly had far stronger memories for other fans, for me the sheer on-field influence he still holds is best exemplified by Jeonbuk’s 3-2 win over Kashiwa Reysol in 2018. Jeonbuk were 2-0 down at half-time with the manager opting to unleash his trusted striker from the bench to get themselves back in it. Within moments he had scored, before Kim Jin-su made it two. Lee would then complete the comeback with a curling effort from outside the area around ten minutes from time to mark Jeonbuk’s return to the Champions League in true style.
Forward: Sergio Agüero
“Manchester City are still alive here. Balotelli, AguerooOOOOOOOO!!! I swear you’ll never see anything like this ever again!! So watch it! Drink it in! They’ve just heard the news at The Stadium of Light! Two goals in added time for Manchester City to snatch the title away from Manchester United!”
The best is saved for the last. One of the greatest Premier League moments by one of the greatest strikers of all time. If football ended that day, I would have accepted it. “Typical City No More” were the theme of the headlines for the following days yet for me that final day could not have been more typical. One last kick to the proverbials, one last go at doing it the hard way, and yet one last act of defiance when everyone deemed us to be dead. City in microcosm.
I was watching this late in China where I was working at the time. I called my Dad on Skype shortly after for what was what you could have imagined to be an emotional conversation. My family had travelled out to see me a few weeks prior and we had witnessed City wrestle back control from United together to regain control of their fate in the title race, but they had to leave before the final three matches. Still, I wish I had been with them for that specific moment. Never have I felt more homesick in my life.
A massive thank you to Matthew for answering my questions on Jeonbuk Motors and Korean football in general, and for being a brilliant guest on the Starting XI series! Got to love that team, starting with a Manchester City base, with a large dose of Korean flavour thrown in. Agüero and Lee Dong-gook upfront!! Oooof, what a partnership that could have been (or still be)!
To find out more about Matthew, the links to his social media accounts can be found below:
To read or catch up on the previous Starting XI episodes, they can all be found at the following link HERE.
If there you have any feedback, comments or suggestions who I should interview next in the series, let me know either below in the comments box, tweet me @The94thMin or email me at email@example.com! It would be good to hear what you think about the series, and what have been your favourite episodes so far!
Finally, I am currently in the depths of doing a charity challenge of staying sober for the entirety of 2020! It’s not easy but I am hoping to raise a lot of money for the mental health charity, MIND. So if you would like to see how I am progressing in my challenge, or even be kind enough to add a donation, the link is here: