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Not So Lonely at the Bottom: A Year in the Life of a Seoul E-Land Fan

As the famous saying goes, "Football without fans is nothing". Some fans get great enjoyment in supporting their team from afar. Others like to be well and truly in the thick of it. This article follows the highs and lows of supporting K League 2 side Seoul E-Land throughout the 2019 season. Join us, as we delve into life in the K League, its early morning starts, KTX rides to nowhere, and its last-minute heartbreaks. We know what happened on the pitch, now let's talk about what happened off it.

How We Got Here

Since I arrived in Seoul back in the summer of 2017, I dabbled around with a few football teams. I went to Incheon United, I sat in the stands over at Seongnam. I even regrettably sat in the home end at FC Seoul. However, it was the men who play in the Seoul Olympic Stadium which captured my imagination, Seoul E-Land. I have never seen a shirt like it, royal blue with a leopard print design. A beautiful stadium, steeped in history. I was hooked instantly.

Fast forward two and a half seasons later, it has been far from perfect on the pitch. However, it has been what has happened off it, which makes this club forever have a place in my heart. I am going to run through the season in this article. It will say nothing about performances, or positions in the league. Simply just a take on what it is like to be a fan of Seoul E-Land. Nothing more, nothing less.
Before the season began, I had to prepare. I invested in a smart, blue and white flag for the team with the team’s crest in the middle, and ‘Manchester Leopards’ written at the top and bottom. I wanted to create a European style flag for Seoul, and inject the fan base with some English football culture.

And So The Curtain is Raised...

It all began in March. There was an uncertainty about the club at the time. We lost a lot of players in the offseason, but we signed some strong talented players to give our squad depth. The first and second game was to be played over in Jamsil, before the long journey to Cheonan would have to be made for the majority of the season.

March is a changeover month here in Korea; teachers come and teachers go. I felt it was my duty to bring the new co-teachers to see some real football. The first game was a pummeling by Gwangju. The co-teachers never came back. The first points of the season were recorded the week later. A last gasp equaliser from Ansan Greeners took the win away from the Leopards. Late drama would haunt the team for the best part of the year.

The first away game fell on St. Patrick’s Day and it was a Sunday. After a very heavy Saturday evening, I and Antonio (my colleague and proud Mexican Seoul E-Land fan) met at Seoul Station. With foggy heads, we made the hour KTX journey to Daejeon. The first stalemate then persevered between the two teams, yet I was more interested in trying to get my Ireland flag on TV. Right next to my brand new, ‘Manchester Leopards’ one.

I was accustomed to getting photos with the mascot of the opponents when travelling away. 

After a short international break, the first midweek, FA Cup fixture was scheduled. Two days before my birthday saw me leave my school at 6 pm, and bolt it through Seoul Station. I had to run, I had no choice. I had to go all the way from Dobong-gu in the north, to Bucheon in the west. I made it just as the players were walking out. This was the debut of Douglas Coutinho, and what a debut he had, scoring in a 3-1 win. This was the first and last extra time Seoul had this year, and probably one of the best games I went to.

Three days later, and after an eventful birthday night out, a night out that like many ended in a Noraebang in the early hours of the morning, we once again got on the KTX. This was a strange one for us. The home team was Asan Mugunghwa, our new local rivals. With Seoul moving down the Cheonan, they would now only be a stone’s throw away from each other. Was this a derby? It was a bitterly cold day from what I remembered, we stood in the entrance, warming ourselves with ramen as the hail fell. Shielding ourselves from the last of the winter's roar.

The Cheonan Era

April 6th 2019. The day we dreaded for a while finally came upon us; our first game in our temporary home. The club put on free coaches for the fans to go and watch the games from Jamsil. Two hours there, two hours back. I made this journey on the coach twice. Never again. We also played there the week later, but this was to be the first game of 2019 I was absent from. No vacation nor work commitments stopped me. I gave myself food poisoning the night before and was bedridden watching Seoul thump Anyang. I seriously thought I was a bad luck charm. Their first league win of the season and I wasn’t there to see it. Probably better to be sick, than to make that bus journey again I suppose.

A couple of days later, we were in FA Cup action once more. A trip down to Honam University for the E-Land faithful was on the cards. I also would have made the journey, if it wasn’t at 2 pm, in the middle of a workweek. I fondly remember watching it off my phone on my break, glued to the action. Finally, we got another win that day. This though, was where it turned sour for Seoul. We would not see another win for over three and a half months.

The Cheonan era was one I don't wish to repeat
The Jeonnam game was a Monday night and there was no chance I was making it. I was also invited onto the K League United Podcast that evening. So I had my eyes on the game and my ears on the pod. There were to be a few games in this period I missed due to the times of the games and prior commitments. Yet the Busan game stood out for me. I had a friend over from the United Kingdom, and we ‘took over’ the Wolfhound pub in Itaewon. With my trusty flag hung on the wall. We sat and watched a 4-1 drilling at the hands of IPark.

The Cracks Start to Appear...

After trips down to Cheonan and Suwon unfolding over the next two weeks with no victories, it started to feel like we were never going to win another game this year. Our next tie was Daejeon Korail in the FA Cup, we should beat them, we have to beat them. We lost 2-0. A very sad Michael, sat at home eating shepherd’s pie watching that game. The pie was a lot better than the performance
I made it to 30 out of the 39 games played this season, yet it felt like in this period I wasn’t getting to any of them. Throughout May and June, four of the six games were played midweek. In a normal season this would have been fine, but try going from north Seoul to Cheonan in under an hour. 

The first retaliation from the fans came in later June. Another trip to Bucheon, this time in the league, and this was ‘conveniently’ on a Monday night. A hop, skip, and a jump over there, saw me make it once again, just in time. After a 3-2 loss, fans made their opinions known, it was time to let Seoul know how we felt. I always remember this game, as afterwards, we all went for dinner. Even though we lost, a friendship was being strengthened amongst fans.

That weekend, we had to go to Ansan, however, I had a wedding in the morning. It was the first time I went to a game in black shiny shoes and a suit. My appearance did not match their performance. This was the first time in the season I cried watching the game. It was the pain of last year, as well as the poor form so far which brought it. Sometimes there are a lot of things not written and said in my previews each week. I normally keep personal opinions and thoughts about the team to a minimum. However, on that evening it flowed, I looked like I was left standing at the altar.

The First Big Away Game

The next week was the first big away game. On early Saturday morning, I was on the KTX down to Busan. A solo trip this time, as Antonio had prior arrangements. I decided to push the boat out and buy a hotel, rather than a hostel. It was situated right on Haeundae beach. This was a perfect away game for me. It reminded me of European away games from my University days, following Manchester United. I have never been swimming in the sea hours before a football game, this was heaven.

One of many TV appearances throughout the year (Image via SPOTV).

I must say this was by far my favourite away game experience. I met with the usual suspects in the ground, who were more than happy to remind me of my teary eyes the week prior. Cheers, lads. Busan was great and I even met the KLU Busan IPark writers Tom and Todd, a couple of lads who were more than happy to accommodate me during my time in Busan. The weekend was topped off with a beautiful Spanish paella, sat by the beach. I soaked up the summer sun before the return train back to Seoul. Why can we not just play Busan every week?

Watching from afar...

Cheonan Asan station was the destination for the next two games, one home game and one away, both ended in defeat. I was starting to get worried now, I genuinely began to believe that Seoul was not going to win another game this year. Then something magical happened. On a Sunday evening in late July, Seoul E-Land beat Jeonnam away from home. Where was I during this you may ask? I was in Hanoi, Vietnam. I needed a vacation away from it all. But as I have said before, I am the bad luck charm of Seoul. I remember being sat in a restaurant, using their Wifi to watch the game. The Vietnamese are lovely people, and generally interested in what I was watching. Seoul E-Land shirt and flag in hand, I disrupted the whole street when Won Ki-jong smashed the ball into the back of the net. 

Hanoi was rocking back in late July.
We needed to hold on. I must have been the most nervous person in Hanoi for the last ten minutes of the game. Then it happened, we won. Our first win in 15 games and it felt like we won the cup. I was running through the streets of Hanoi, proudly waving my flag. I also felt so happy for the boys who I travel to a lot of the games with. "The Doctor", Min-hyung, they were all there. K League official photos were taken of them openly weeping. It just reminds you that sometimes, this is more than just a game for some people. At least when I cried, no one got their cameras out.

Back on Hallowed Turf...

That was a magical night for Seoul E-Land as it was the start of our four-game winning streak. Not only that but for August, we were back in Seoul. I rounded up all the Seoul E-Land fans before the game and all met in a bar. I wanted us to go together, like a unit, like a team. There we were, the 15 of us all marching down to Jamsil. I remember this game against Bucheon well, as a friend of mine, an FC Seoul fan called Ian made the journey. Ian wanted to see what was going on with Seoul this year, and after a 1-0 win, he was very impressed. 

We were in fine voice, chanting both new and old songs. A couple of my chants were pulled out that evening. My ‘Sarangi Seoul E-Land’ chant was a popular one. The next two games were more of the same. Go to Jamsil, win, repeat. We started to feel like an actual football team again. Morale was high. The last two games in Jamsil were Ansan Greeners and Busan IPark. I went on a family vacation during this time to Spain, but I was hoping to get back for the Busan match.

Are you not entertained?

I arrived in Barcelona airport after almost 20 hours of travel to find out that Seoul lost to Ansan. It wasn’t the best start to my vacation over in sunny Spain. Everything would be okay however, the week later. I was going to get into Seoul on time for the Busan game, and then go out for editor-in-chief Ryan's birthday. Everything went to plan in Barcelona, we were on time and on schedule. It was my connecting flight in Doha which was the issue. A four-hour delay. I felt heartbroken. I was going to arrive in Incheon Airport at the same time the game kicked off. The flight took so long to get back to Seoul, that when I finally turned my phone back on, Seoul were 3-0 down. 

I had more questions than answers. However, something magical must have happened over in Jamsil that night, as the comeback was on. As I was getting off the plane, it was 3-1. As I collected my bags, 3-2. Something could happen here I thought. It was the 3rd goal which was the most prolific. On a quiet, dark limousine bus back to Dobong-gu, a 25-year-old Mancunian jumped up and screamed when Coutinho got the equalizer. Everyone turned and looked, I really did not care, it was the comeback of the year for Seoul.

A Challenging Chuseok

Another international break was upon us after that game and no Seoul E-Land for two weeks. It was also Chuseok during this time, so I went on another vacation to Japan. I do actually work in Korea, I just go to places which are cheap to fly to, and at the right times. This time, however, I was not having a repeat of Doha, and I booked my flight home on Friday. This was to make it back in time for Saturday’s game down in Daejeon. As it was Chuseok, all the KTX and buses were sold out a month prior. It was The Doctor and Min-hyung once again with the save. We drove down there on Saturday morning. Two hours to get down there, four and a half hours back. I never want to experience Chuseok traffic ever again in my life.

The word fans and family were used a lot throughout 2019

Daejeon was a tough pill to swallow. It put us level on points with them and, with the way we were playing, they would only leapfrog over us. Three days later, however, I was once again hopeful. I asked my school to do me a favour and let me finish early. Pulling a couple of strings, and asking teachers I have helped in the past. I managed to get my 5:15 class covered, and I was charging down to Seoul Station once again, making the KTX by two minutes. The trip was going so smoothly, I was going to make it on time to the game. Get in Michael, you’ve done it again. However, things took a turn for the worse once I arrived in Cheonan. 

I went to the taxi rank, and there was a long line of people and no taxis. I was going to fall again at the final hurdle. Ten minutes passed and I finally got to the front of the queue. This was my time. Then all of a sudden, a taxi came, yet the driver got out. Now my Korean is basic at best, but he was asking if anyone was going to the next town. No chance, mate. I jumped in the cab and just kept repeating the destination. He reluctantly took me there. Well, I say reluctantly, he whacked on the 20% increase, something I couldn’t understand for a seven-minute journey in the same city. Sometimes you have to let things like that fly.

Can You do it on a Rainy Evening Down in Anyang?

The heaviest defeat of the year came in the next game. It was Anyang looking for revenge. This game was remembered for all the wrong reasons. It started off well; Antonio wanted to prove his culinary skills and invited me around for some homemade fried chicken. I must say, it was good. Then we jumped into a cab and went to the stadium. Antonio didn’t live too far from Anyang stadium, so it made sense. The rain poured that day, and I remember going head over heels on the slippery stairs. My back was bruised for several weeks.

A bit of bad blood has been shed between the two sides this year and their security was very scrutinous on us actually chanting and playing the drums. After a fan requested to see the K League rule book, where it states “do not play the drums”, he quickly retaliated. That did not excuse the poor result, this was one where both on the pitch and off it, I’d rather forget the day.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

We felt a bit bruised (pun intended) and broken as fans at this point in the season. We were treated poorly at Anyang, we were bottom of the league, we were the joke of Korean football. Yet, we just kept on going, we turned up, the true and the faithful. The next week was going to be another first. We flew to Gwangju. Myself, Antonio, and accompanied by our friend Danny Boy, we went down for the weekend. Danny Boy went the night before by train, but I and Antonio met early morning at Gimpo airport. We were very eager, as we were there a few hours before takeoff. Once we arrived in Gwangju, we got the subway straight to the guesthouse we were staying at. That is when the comedy started. It was one of these “contact the shop downstairs to get in” kind of gigs. However, the shop below was conveniently closed. For an hour or so we collected our thoughts and hoped someone would turn up.
A lovely taxi driver down in Gwangju, got the banter flowing.

We managed to find a phone number online, and my Korean was put to the test again. How I managed to get into the hostel is still beyond me, but my button pressing on the keypad and hoping worked. That was the hostel taken care of, now its time to find Danny Boy. We decided to meet in a natural place next to a Samgyeopsal restaurant. That was the lunch of choice to fill ourselves for the big game ahead. We waited no longer than five minutes, before a taxi pulled up, and out stepped Danny Boy. The first words out of his mouth were “Look at the hair, $30 and not a grey hair in sight”. Now I love Korean BBQ, but I tried to not eat so much at lunch because I had my heart set on dinner. See, I did some research before coming to Gwangju, and I found a kebab shop right next to where we were staying. Result.

Danny Boy was in his element (Photo courtesy of @Nice_Jangzziway)
We got to the stadium, and compared with the week prior, the security was more than accommodating to the away support. I tip my hat to Gwangju. After the game, however, the Gwangju fans were more interested in getting Seoul E-Land signatures than Gwangju’s. You would have thought they were in contention for getting promoted at the time. The evening in Gwangju was uneventful, we were too tired from the day to make it a big one. However, I still had my heart set on a kebab. Around an hour I walked around Gwangju looking for that shop, I never found it. A truly heartbreaking moment. The trip home was also rounded off with a three-hour delay in the airport, all is well that ends well I suppose.

A Little Bit of Jeonbuk Influence

Normality resumed a couple days later, and a Tuesday fixture against Asan was upon us. I watched that one at home, as I couldn’t twist my school’s arm at that time to go. The weekend’s tie was the second division super match. On a Sunday afternoon in Suwon, I managed to convince Matthew Binns of Jeonbuk fame to come and sit in the away stands with us. It was a pretty uneventful game as we were deflated as fans. 

The week later was the game a lot of fans were looking forward to. It was the last game in Cheonan. Finally, we could call ourselves Seoul E-Land once again, and it made sense. We welcomed Daejeon Citizen, who more than basically confirmed 9th position at this point. A draw only prolonged the inevitable for us, the next week was at Bucheon. 

A Bitter Pill to Swallow

Bucheon vs Seoul E-Land that early November Saturday was nothing short of heartbreaking. I decided to depart from Nowon that day, as there would be no transfers on the metro and I could get a cheeky Subway sandwich before it all began. After taking the lead, Bucheon made it 2-1 in the second half. I know I said I wouldn’t talk about the result here, but this was too painful. After Seoul E-Land equalized in the 80th minute, the referee called for the spot-kick in injury time. Bucheon converted, and 10th place was confirmed for the second season in a row. 

Kim Young-kwang, a pillar for the team since their inception back in 2015
There were tears, I won’t lie. I truly believed this team could have done something this year, yet I was left alone in the away section. A vivid image still sits on my mind, I sat alone, all the Seoul fans left after the game. I stayed in the stadium for a further ten minutes; this was very hard to take. The security didn't want to ask me to leave, they saw what the fans have just been through. This was also a day where I watched Manchester United lose and England lose in the final of the Rugby World Cup. I knew luck was not on my side. I cut my losses and decided to stay in for the remainder of the weekend.

The Last Hurrah

We had one game left. One last game to restore some pride we had left. A good crowd went. Of course, they did. We were back in Seoul! The usual suspects were there, Danny Boy, Antonio, a couple of K League United Writers. They all wanted to see this failing team off. It was a game Seoul were winning for a portion of the game, but Busan was dominant in the second half. That, however, did not stop the chanting and singing from Seoul E-Land. There was a lot of hugs and tears throughout the game. We felt like a family at this point. 

The long hard season was over, and we still stood tall. Kim Mink-yun scored in injury time to make it 5-3, and I don’t think I’ve celebrated a Seoul E-Land goal so much. It cemented the idea that win, lose, or draw, we are Seoul E-Land. After the game, we were allowed on the pitch to talk and take photos with the players. You could see in their eyes their sorrow and disappointment. We got a lot of apologies that day from them. They knew it was by far a stellar season. As we walked out of the Olympic stadium, that cold November evening, spirits were still high, even after all we have been through.

This is Why We Do It

But isn’t that what supporting a football club is all about? Win, lose, or draw? Okay, Seoul did a lot more losing than any other team, but the principle still stands. Simply because of Seoul E-Land, I explored many cities, made countless friends, and found an identity during my time here in Korea. Sometimes, being a part of something is more important than any name on a trophy, or three points on the board. So who knows what 2020 will bring to Seoul E-Land and the team, but I do know that once March rolls around, I'll be doing it all over again. SEFC!

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