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Bouncing Back: Automatic Relegation

Jeju United became the latest team to suffer relegation from the top division after finishing bottom of K League 1 in 2019. To try and predict how long it will take for the Tangerines to bounce back and earn promotion, Associate Editor Paul Neat takes a look at what became of those teams which suffered the same fate.


Bouncing back from relegation is no mean feat. In fact, since relegation to the second tier began in 2012, only two different teams have managed to earn promotion the season immediately following relegation heartbreak, and three teams are still yet to do so. But, on average, how long does it take for the relegated teams to return to the promise land? Part one of 'Bouncing Back' takes a look at the teams which finished bottom of K League 1 and what happened thereafter.


Sangju Sangmu & Gwangju FC

The 2012 season was somewhat unique on account of there being two teams who went down automatically, one of which, Sangju Sangmu, was sent down before even entering the split. The powers that be at K League decided that, because Sangju are a military team, they should start the 2013 season in the second tier. Park Hangseo, who was the manager at the time, then decided that he and his players were to boycott their remaining fixtures as a result.

Sangju made an immediate return to the top flight 12 months later, though, by finishing top of the K League Challenge (K League 2). However, it wasn't as simple as finishing first in the second tier as as it is today. Instead, Sangju also had to overcome Gangwon FC in the first ever Promotion/Relegation Playoffs and did so with a 4-2 aggregate win.

Manager Park Hangseo was in charge at Sangju for four years between December 2011 and December 2015
Under manager Yeo Bumkyu, Gwangju FC had another two seasons in the second division before the South Jeolla side were able to seal win promotion via the playoffs in 2014. The Yellows finished second and then out-edged Gyeongnam FC with a 4-2 aggregate win. The first leg was played at Guus Hiddink Stadium where Gwangju cruised to a 3-1 win thanks to goals from Cho Yongtae, Diego, and Sreten for the hosts and Stojanović for the Reds. Three days later the two teams played out a 1-1 draw, Song Sooyoung initially gave Gyeongnam the lead and a ray of hope only for Kim Honam to level and restore Gwangju's two-goal cushion.

Sangju Promoted: Yes
Gwangju Promoted: Yes
Time Elapsed: Sangju One Year, Gwangju Two Years


Daejeon Citizen & Daegu FC

In a 16-team K League Classic, three sides fell through the trap draw two with two doing so automatically and a further team through the playoffs. In 2013 Daejeon Citizen finished bottom of the table, despite the late Cho Jinho taking over mid-season and guiding the Purples to an impressive end of season run. Daejeon returned the following year by running away with the K League Challenge (K League 2) title under Cho Jinho. Brazilian striker Adriano, who later went on to have trophy-laden spells with FC Seoul and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, scored 27 goals and still holds the record for the most goals in K League 2.

The late Cho Jinho almost saved Daejeon from relegation as caretaker manager at the end of 2013.
With three different managers at the helm at various points in the campaign, Daegu also went down automatically in 2013 and had to wait until 2016 before returning to the top flight. Dang Sungjeung, Baek Jongchul, and eventually Choi Deokju sat in the hotseat at Daegu Stadium. Choi stayed until the end of the 2014 season but left for Lee Youngjin to take over. Promotion was sealed under the tutalige of caretaker manager Son Hyunjun who tookover from Lee in August 2016.

Despite finishing second in the second tier that year, Daegu were promoted automatically after it was ruled that 2016 K League Challenge (K League 2) Champions Ansan Mugunghwa were not eligible for promotion due to the team's impending relocation to Asan for 2017. Daegu have remained in K League 1 ever since and even went on to win the FA Cup in 2018 and competing in AFC Champions League for the first time and sealing their best ever finish to a season by securing fifth place in 2019.

Daejeon Promoted: Yes
Daegu Promoted: Yes
Time Elapsed: Daejeon One Year, Daegu Three Years


Sangju Sangmu
Yang Junah (right), now of Incheon United, made the most appearances for Sangju in 2014
After relegation in 2014, Sangju followed in the footsteps of the team which replaced them, Daejeon, by securing an immediate return to K League 1 thanks to a first second-tier title for the military side 12 months later. Much like Citizen, Sangju finished top of K League 2 but by a much finer margin.

Sangju finished level on points and goal difference with Daegu FC but scored 10 goals more than their Gyeongsang Province neighbours and so made their return to the top division under Park Hangseo. Park left at the end of 2015, though, and in came former Daejeon Citizen gaffer Cho Jinho who guided Sangju to sixth in K League 1 in 2016, their highest ever finish to date. The military club have remained in the top division ever since, despite flirting with relegation in 2017 and 2018, and made it to the FA Cup semi-final in 2019.

Promoted: Yes
Time Elapsed: One Year


Daejeon Citizen
Daejeon lost Adriano and manager Cho Jinho and failed to recover in 2015.
Daejeon Citizen's return to the K League Classic was short lived. The Purples endured a torrid 2015, finishing bottom of the league on a dismal 19 points - the record lowest points total in K League history. Unlike the Purples' previous relegation, Daejeon were unable to make a return to K League 1 and have been in the second tier ever since, finishing seventh, tenth, fourth, and ninth over the last four seasons. A takeover from Hana Financial Group has given the Purple Arena faithful some fresh optimism, though, as the banking giants have pledged to turn Daejeon into one of the countries top football teams.

Promoted: No
Time Elapsed: Four Years +


Suwon FC
The 2016 season remains Suwon FC's only year in the top flight.
Similarly to Daejeon a year earlier, following Suwon's relegation in 2016 the Castle Park club have since been unable to add to their solitary season in the top division. In the three seasons that have passed since, Suwon have finished in sixth, seventh, and eighth place and have had three managers. Suwon battled bravely towards the end of the 2016 season and were only two points adrift of eleventh, and four adrift of safety heading into the split.

Manager Cho Dukje remained at the club until the end of August 2017 before departing. Kim Daeui took over but then stepped down in November 2019, Kim Dokyun a former midfielder who had spells with Ulsan, Seongnam, and Jeonnam, has since been appointed as the club's new manager.

Promoted: No
Time Elapsed: Three Years +


Gwangju FC
Gwangju only had to wait two seasons before regaining promotion back to K League 1.
In 2017 Gwangju FC finished bottom of the league, five points adrift of Sangju Sangmu in eleventh and Jeonnam Dragons in 10th. The following season, the Yellows reached the playoff semi-finals despite finishing in fifth. With Asan Mugunghwa unable to earn promotion, Seongnam in second were given automatic promotion and so third, fourth, and fifth became the playoff spots. Gwangju lost 1-0 to Daejeon in the semis but bounced back in 2019 by sealing the K League 2 title.

Promoted: Yes
Time Elapsed: Two Years


Jeonnam Dragons
Jeonnam suffered their first relegation in 2018 and finished sixth in K League 2 in 2019.
Jeonnam Dragons suffered their first relegation in 2018 by finishing at the foot of the table and eight points from safety. The Dragons board appointed Fabiano Soares as their new manager, hoping that the Brazilian would guide the club back to K League 1 at the first time of asking. However, Soares was dismissed mid-season and Jeon Kyungjun took over. A late surge made playoff qualification a realistic possibility but the South Jeolla side finished sixth, three points outside the top four.

Promoted: No
Time Elapsed: One Year+


  • From the nine instances of automatic relegation, six teams have managed to earn promotion back to the top flight (Sangju twice, Gwangju twice, Daejeon, and Daegu).
  • There have been three examples of immediate returns by two different teams: Sangju Sangmu in 2012/2013 and 2014/2015, as well as Daejeon Citizen in 2013/2014.
  • Of the six teams which have won promotion following relegation, five have done so automatically.
  • Gwangju FC in 2014 are the only team to be relegated automatically return via the playoffs.
  • On average it has taken 1.66 years for teams to bounce back.
  • The longest time between relegation and promotion is three years (Daegu FC 2014 - 2016)
  • This record was broken by Daejeon Citizen in 2019 who played in K League 2 for the fourth straight season. 
  • Suwon FC and Jeonnam Dragons are the only teams yet to return to K League 1 following relegation.

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