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Fan Column: Domestic Cup Glory Could Be The Catalyst for the Horang-i

With the two-legged FA Cup Final forthcoming for Ulsan Hyundai against provincial neighbours Busan IPark, long-time K League United reader and guest columnist Mike O'Neill couldn't help but hark back to Ulsan's most recent silverware-laden spell. Could another domestic trophy for the South Gyeongsang outfit set Kim Dohoon's side up for a tilt at continental glory once again in 2018?
(Image via Naver

Nottingham Forest FC are an English football club with a storied history. They’ve twice won the European Cup, twice won the FA Cup and even won the old English First Division back in 1978. Forest have fallen on hard times since those heady days. Other clubs have knocked them from every perch they once sat on, with one exception, the Full Member’s Cup. What’s that you say? You’ve never heard of the Full Member’s Cup? That’s understandable if you aren’t a fan of Blackburn, Reading, Crystal Palace, Chelsea or the aforementioned Nottingham Forest. It was an English cup competition that took place from 1985 to 1992 and those were the teams that won it. Nottingham Forest won the final iteration of the Full Member’s Cup, thus making them the Eternal Champions.

Now you may be wondering why I’m writing about a defunct English cup here in K League United. Well it’s on the occasion of my team, Ulsan Hyundai FC, making an appearance in this year’s FA Cup Final. It’s brought to mind the last time the boys in blue won a domestic cup. That’s right, who can forget that Ulsan Hyundai FC are Eternal Champions of the Rush and Cash (Rush-ee and Cash-ee) Cup? Way back in 2011 Ulsan defeated Busan I’Park (who they will also face in this year’s FA Cup Final) to win the last ever League Cup in South Korea. It was a glorious run, and the beginning of a memorable and much too brief period in which Ulsan was the center of football dominance in all of Asia.

That 2011 Tigers team was a lot of fun. It had just the right mix of veterans and rookies, famous names and unknowns, players nearing the ends of their careers and future stars getting their first taste of senior team action. Players like: Kwak Tae-Hwi who was at perhaps the height of his prowess and was the rare center back who took most of the free kicks for the team, Seol Ki-Hyeon who had a nice half-season in Pohang the year before after a disappointing career in England came to an end, Juan Estiven Vélez,​ a fan favorite and unarguably the greatest Colombian midfielder to ever grace the K League with his presence, stalwart goalkeeper Kim Young-Kwang was the ironman between the posts for almost every game back then, but his little-known backup was future Korean National Team keeper Kim Seung-Gyu who would make the first appearance of his career that season but was then known more for his bird’s nest of frizzy black hair.

All of these guys were coached by a man who’s come to be known more for his failures than his successes, Kim Ho-kon. The real story of the 2011 League Cup however, and of that season in general, was the coming-out party of Mr. Kim Shin-Wook. The Korean Peter Crouch came out of nowhere that year to take the league (and especially the League Cup) by storm. Nobody had an answer for him, as he led the tournament goalscorers by a laughably wide margin. Shin-Wook finished the tournament having scored an incredible ELEVEN goals in eight games. Defensive midfielder Kim Jung-Woo, nominally with Jeonbuk but fulfilling his military service at the time with Sangju, finished as second leading scorer of the competition with only three goals. Kim Shin-Wook had 11 in only eight games. You’d be hard pressed to name another player who came from out of the blue and impacted a team the way Shin-Wook (pictured below) did that year. We all thought he’d end up in Europe sooner or later, but things seldom work out the way anyone expects them to do they?

Image via Naver
But in the 2011 League Cup he was a god and I’ll never forget being there to enjoy it firsthand. Even though 2011 was only six years ago, the K League was quite different back then. There was no Challenge/Classic, just 16 teams in one league with the addition of the newly formed Gwangju FC. This was also the year in which a huge bribery scandal would rock the league, which is actually the reason the League Cup was discontinued after the 2011 season. I don’t believe that results in this tournament were any more or less affected by players taking bribes but it was certainly used as a scapegoat and to punish the players, but who really knows?

I digress, the format of the League Cup was that all the teams in the K League would take part. There would be two groups of six which would play a single game against each other. The winner and runner-up of each group would then proceed to the knockout portion of the competition where they would be joined by the four teams participating in the AFC Champions League (ACL) that year. Busan pipped Ulsan for the top spot of Group B, both teams finished with four wins and a single loss, but Busan had one better goal differential. In any case, both Southeastern clubs were through to the knockout stage. Joining them were the top two teams from Group A (and also stalwarts of the Southeast) Pohang and Gyeongnam, as well as the ACL teams of FC Seoul, Jeju United, Jeonbuk Hyundai and Suwon Samsung.

In the Quarterfinals Ulsan drew the team nobody ever wants to face, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. But, I think they must have still been playing in Asia at that point in time as we certainly didn’t see their best that day. Ulsan were 4-1 winners behind a Kim Shin-Wook brace and goals from Choi Jae-Soo and Jung Dae-Sun. Both Choi and Jung’s goals scored that day were the only goals they ever scored for the club. I remember the difference in how I felt before and after that game. It was the moment when we all realized this tournament is now wide open and there’s the possibility of silverware on the table this season. It always feels good to beat Jeonbuk but to beat them 4-1 and knock them out of a tournament was especially gratifying.

This set us up to play Gyeongnam in the semis, as they had dispatched Seoul 1-0 on a goal from a young Yoon Bit-Garam. Gyeongnam FC have always, in my experience been a very well run, professional team. It’s been since I left Korea that they’ve had their own scandals and issues, which it appears they’ve finally resolved, but at that time they were by far the strongest of the non-corporate clubs. So with a happy heart and gratitude that my job afforded me summers off I spent another sweltering Wednesday in July at the Big Crown Stadium and a king was indeed crowned in Munsu that day. It was a thrilling game as Gyeongnam’s Lee Hyo-Kyun scored first, followed by a Kim Shin-Wook hat-trick then Gyeongnam’s Lee Dong-Geun scored in the 80th minute to set up a tense final ten minutes. In the 87th minute however the game was put to bed as, incredibly, our Kim Shin-wook put his fourth goal of the day past the Gyeongnam keeper to ensure Ulsan’s place in the finals. King. Legend. Kim Shin-Wook.

The final was a week later against Southeastern rivals Busan. Actually, there really never has been much of a rivalry between Busan and Ulsan. The IParks are basically the Middlesbrough to Ulsan’s Sunderland and Pohang’s Newcastle United. That said, it’s quite incredible the number of highly consequential games the two teams have played against each other over the years. If Busan wasn’t so much of a baseball town, and if they hadn’t spent all those years playing in the horribly cavernous Asiad Main Stadium perhaps things would have been different. Alas, for the third consecutive game Ulsan were drawn at home so back to Munsu we went. With silverware at stake over 20,000 fans showed up ,which was truly incredible for a weeknight match. The largest crowds I’ve ever witnessed at Munsu were probably Korea vs Iran in a WC qualifier in 2013, the last game of the 2013 season which I still refuse to talk about (a 1-0 defeat to Pohang in a title decider), the 2012 AFC Final match and then this League Cup Final.

Ulsan went up 3-0 before Busan scored two very late goals to make it interesting, but the Horang-i prevailed in the end winning 3-2. Shin-Wook didn’t score in this game or else his final tournament goal tally would have been even more incredible than it already was. The crowd went wild as the cup was lifted and we all had visions of glory to come, as this felt like just the beginning of something great. Sure enough, despite finishing the K League season in sixth place Ulsan went on another run that year in the odd postseason the K League used to have. We lost to Jeonbuk in the K League finals but by virtue of making it that far in the postseason, technically finished as the second place team of 2011 despite really being sixth in the table. If you’re confused you’re not alone, they used to do some odd things back then. Second place, of course, comes with a place in the AFC Champions League which Ulsan proceeded to win the very next year, but that’s a story for another time.

If you’ve made it this far I thank you. I’ve always felt like the only foreign fan the team has ever had, so I’m happy to share these stories with you. Once again it’s Busan who stands between us and glory. Based on recent form up until the playoff final you’d have to like Busan’s chances in this year’s FA Cup finals, but I believe in the boys in blue and predict a tight, 1-0 victory and another undeserved spot in the AFC Champions League next year. Who know’s we may as well win that one too!

By Mike O'Neill

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