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Column: In K League 1 for 14 minutes


For 14 minutes Daejeon Hana Citizen fans dared to dream. For 14 minutes their team was in K League 1 at last, after a prolonged stay in the second tier. But everything unravelled in less than a third of that time, shipping three goals in four minutes to gift survival, and the tie, to Gangwon FC. The Purples have to start from scratch and ensure that there is no playoff hangover in 2022. Daejeon Hana Citizen columnist Paul Neat looks back on that fateful day in Gangneung and ahead to the new campaign.

After the 1-0 first-leg win over Gangwon in the 2021 K League Promotion/Relegation Final on December 8th 2021, Daejeon made the long trip to Gangneung four days later knowing that a draw in the second leg would see them win promotion.

It was all going to plan, too. With 17 minutes on the clock right-wing back Lee Jong-hyeon let rip with a long-range screamer. It was pandemonium in the away end, or "limbs" as is the phrase of the moment, while everyone on the bench made their way onto the pitch. That was it: 2-0 up on aggregate and back to K League 1. It can't be this easy, can it? 

No, as it turned out as, while Daejeon fans were thinking about all the K League 1 away days in 2022 - FC Seoul, the flight to Jeju, a trip to the East Coast and to the Steelyard, Suwon Bluewings, Incheon United - the team was struggling to maintain its grip on the match.

The atmosphere began to sour when Lee Ji-sol clumsily bundled the ball into his own net on 26 minutes. But, it was still 2-1 to Daejeon - it wasn't the end of the world. They just needed to regroup and keep things tight. But two minutes later Lim Chae-min headed in a second at the back post to make 2-1 on the day and 2-2 on aggregate. Daejeon's away goal meant that the Purples were still hanging on and,as things stood, were heading to K League 1.

But on 31 minutes Han Kook-young turned into Leo Messi to weave his way through a crowd of Daejeon players before rolling the ball into the bottom corner. It was a shock. That four-minute spell was a blur, it all happened in the blink of an eye and no one could believe what they were witnessing. That was the difference between the two teams, though - that little bit of class when it mattered. To borrow a phrase from the phrasebook of former Sunderland manager Peter Reid, albeit sans expletives, it was "men against boys".

Poor defending and poor goalkeeping from Lee Ji-sol and Kim Dong-jun respectively, two players who won't be there to pick up the pieces in 2022, both having joined Jeju United in a two-for-three swap deal, were culpable but the whole team were never truly in the game. In the opposing dugout, Choi Yong-soo had outwitted the first-year manager Lee Min-sung and Daejeon players just seemed overawed by the occasion. 

[READ: Daejeon Citizen's FA Cup triumph remembered 20 years on]

Daejeon, then, were back in the top flight for 14 minutes. From the time of Lee Jong-hyeon's goal to make it 1-0 on 17 minutes to the time of Han Kook-young's solo effort hit the back of the net, just 14 minutes had passed. That must be the shortest promotion in the history of football. It felt good but the crushing disappointment that followed will live long in the memory. 

"Traumatic" was the word which was offered to me afterwards. It was hard to disagree. Other Daejeon fans I have spoken to since have said that it feels like a breakup or like mourning the loss of a loved one. They just didn't see it coming, not like that anyway.

FNR

Much of the narrative, especially after the first leg when Masa teed up Lee Hyun-sik - two former Gangwon players - was that this was Daejeon's time. Masa had said in an interview after bagging a hat-trick against Ansan Greeners in the playoff run-ub that, in football, he had been a "loser" and that he plays like it could be the last match of his life. He endeared himself to Daejeon fans with his Korean interview post-FC Anyang in Round 35 that he wants promotion with the Purples to change his life. 

Framing the tie as a foregone conclusion, according to Han Kook-young, had rattled Gangwon. Perhaps the desire to please the Daejeon faithful had been seen as disrespect to Masa's parent club Gangwon who performed like a different team in that second leg. 

But none of that excuses Gangwon's antics as a club. The club was fined for "Ballboy gate" where ballboys appeared to be deliberately wasting time. It is also alleged by Kim Dong-jun in a recent interview with My Daily that Gangwon FC were up to no good in having some sort of influence in cancelling Daejeon's training pitches, forcing the club to book under another name and not "Daejeon Hana Citizen" due to fear of them not having anywhere to train in the build-up to the match.

Even at 3-2, another Daejeon goal would have done it. Baio saw a glorious chance denied thanks to a superb point-blank save from Lee Gwang-yeon. But then, in the dying embers, Hwang Mun-ki made it 4-1 on the day and 4-2 on aggregate to really put the tie beyond doubt. 

But that's football. It's cruel and there is no such thing as fate or destiny in the "beautiful game". After 2020 and being knocked out of the playoffs by a very questionable and cruel VAR decision, Daejeon fans will have thought that it was all part of the process and that it was because their time was coming in 2021. 

Many will feel the same about 2022; that they were put through that ordeal because something even better is waiting for them. That may still be the case, but Daejeon head into 2022 after something of a rebuild.

[LISTEN: KLU Pod | 2022 Pre-season Episode 2: Interpreters with Kim Min-su]

No fewer than 16 players have left the club, either through transfers, swap deals or just because their contracts were up. Eight of the 16 were involved in some capacity in the two Gangwon matches. Daejeon's team will be quite different this year, then. There will be a new number one, four, five, six, eight, and nine in terms of squad numbers and there will also be a new captain and vice-captain. 

The loss to Gangwon was a sliding doors moment but a fresh start is what Daejeon need, then their return to the top flight might last more than 14 minutes. The problem for Daejeon now is that expectations have been raised significantly; no longer are they a team barely treading water financially but actually - according to some reports at least - have the biggest budget in Korean football. 

But, as one Daejeon fan pointed out to me, that's something they are thankful for. Having players like Kim Dong-jun, Lee Woong-hee, Lee Jin-hyun, Park Jin-seop to name but a few, don the shirt - Daejeon have been able to sign players like this because of the raised expectations. 

The same can be said for this transfer window, too. Regulars at K League 1-level and former Korean youth internationals have arrived, including Cho Yu-min, Kim Jae-woo, Kim Young-wook, and Lee Chang-geun. Daejeon's transfer business, then, will only raise the expectations even further and now it is down to the players and coaching staff to make sure that there is never another repeat of that Gangneung fiaso.

This season simply has to be Daejeon's last in K League 2. With Lee Min-sung at the helm and with the talent that has arrived through the doors at Purple Arena, everything is in place for it to be.

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