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2024 Season Preview: Can Yeom Ki-hun lead Suwon Samsung back to the top flight at the first attempt?

After the shock of a first-ever relegation last December, Suwon Samsung Bluewings will look to bounce back immediately under the guidance of legendary former player Yeom Ki-hun. The Bluewings have a squad stacked with top-flight experience and several promising youngsters. But this unchartered territory for the former champions, and K League 2 clubs will not roll out the red carpet. Will it be promotion at the first attempt, or will the problems keep mounting in Suwon? Andrew Farrell previews Suwon's 2024 season.

Last Season

8 wins, 9 draws, 21 losses; 12th place in K League 1.
강등. Relegation.

What Happened?

It is unlikely any of the 30,000 people in attendance will quickly forget the moment fans of Gangwon FC, Suwon Samsung Bluewings' opponents on the final day of the season, broke out into chants of 수원 강등! 수원 강등! 수원 강등! The final whistle had brought to an end Suwon's uninterrupted 28-year stay in K League 1. The players stood motionless in the centre circle as abuse rained down from different parts of the ground. Not in the away end, however. Gangwon's supporters were reveling in the Bluewings' greatest shame.

It didn't have to be like this. After a rousing late revival following the split, which included a come-from-behind win with 10 men against Suwon FC and a comprehensive single-goal win in Sangam against bitter rivals FC Seoul, Suwon Samsung went down without much of a fight. The ignominy of a first-ever relegation, without a single blow landed. There was no crowd-stirring kitchen sink moment in the final moments. It was meek, underwhelming, and all a bit boring.

Lee Byung-keun began the season as manager but only lasted until mid-April when a 3-2 home loss to Jeju United ended his tenure. As the alarm bells rang all around, the club turned to Kim Byung-soo to put out the fires but he proved to be the wrong choice. Kim was released in September as the threat of relegation loomed ever larger. In stepped one of their greatest players, Yeom Ki-hun, approaching the end of his playing days. Despite an upturn in results, Yeom, and Suwon, were the ones left standing when the music finally stopped.

Suwon Samsung Bluewings spent the entire season in the relegation zone. You have to back to Round 32 of the 2022 campaign for the last time they didn't occupy one of the relegation spots.

Notable Moves

Ko Seung-beom (to: Ulsan HD, transfer)

Ko Seung-beom has already lined out for his new team.
Once Suwon's relegation was confirmed in early December, it was widely expected Ko would be one of the first names out the door at Big Bird. The midfielder is approaching his 30th birthday and unlikely wanted to spend the summer months visiting some of K League 2's hotspots. Ko was a popular player amongst the Suwon faithful, especially during his spell with the club before joining Gimcheon Sangmu. With his shaggy hair and socks by his ankles, his frenzied hunting down of opponents in midfield made him an easy player to like.

Last season, Ko played 32 times, scoring twice and assisting once. The arrival of Japanese midfielder Kozuka Kazuki impacted Ko directly, who spent time on the bench as the season drew to a close. Still, he departs for the champions with 125 league appearances for Suwon under his belt and will look to add to his three international caps by impressing the new national team manager at a club challenging for titles. Ko will surely be missed, but he can be replaced within the squad. 

Kwon Chang-hoon (to: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, free transfer)

Some of the comments following the announcement of Kwon's move to Jeonbuk Hyundai are not fit for reprinting here. Kwon is a brilliant footballer but, at 29, his best days might be behind him. Having come through at Suwon, the midfielder moved to France and then Germany, establishing himself in Europe before returning to the Bluewings. His time with Gimcheon Sangmu was successful, culminating in a call-up for the 2022 World Cup squad in Qatar.

Kwon, however, hasn't played a league game for Suwon since 2021. His departure doesn't leave a gaping hole in midfield because he hasn't featured, but Suwon supporters will feel he could have chosen a different destination once he opted to leave the club, or, having not played in blue for so long, Kwon might have stayed on to join the promotion campaign. 

An Byeong-jun (to: Busan IPark, free transfer)

An is a curious footballer. Prior to joining Suwon Samsung in 2022, the former North Korean international scored 56 goals in 91 K League 2 games for Suwon FC and Busan IPark respectively. His record in the top flight, however, is 13 in 49 games. Either his level is somewhere between the top two leagues, or Suwon Samsung just never got the best out of a player in the twilight of his career.

Following relegation, An was released on a free transfer, rejoining Busan IPark, who are, arguably, Suwon's main rivals for automatic promotion this season. It would be quite the fairytale if An's goals led his new side to K League 1, at Suwon's expense. It is also noticeable that all but one of the striker's Instagram posts from his time with Suwon are now gone. Does he have extra motivation this season?

Kozuka Kazuki (in; free transfer)

Japanese midfielder Kozuka joined on loan from Kawasaki Frontale, making his debut in July against Daejeon Hana Citizen. Three days later, Kozuka wooed the Suwon fans during his home debut, displaying the full range of his passing skills, during a drawn game with Pohang. He made 16 appearances but a suspension following a straight red card in November's derby against Suwon looked to have cut short his stint in Korea.

However, the central midfielder joined on a free transfer, and with Ko Seung-beom's move to Ulsan HD confirmed, he'll be an important player in the middle of the park. Kozuka could prove to be one of the league's best players, and will likely thrive with the extra space he's likely to find. He will see a lot of the ball as Suwon dominate possession, good news for Maxwell Acosty and Kim Ju-chan.

Key Player 

Yang Hyeong-mo is a hugely experienced goalkeeper. Suwon Bluewings will be relying on their new captain to be a rock at the back in K League 2.

Yang Hyeong-mo

The 32-year-old goalkeeper was made captain over the winter, another experienced hand staying put to guide the club back to the top flight at the earliest possible opportunity. There are better players across the squad but one area of weakness heading into the new season is Suwon's defense. Yang, approaching 150 league appearances, is going to be busy, no matter how much ball his team has. If the new captain has a good season, largely error-free, Suwon will be back in the big time. Their promotion campaign starts at the back.

Young Player to Watch

Kim Ju-chan will play for the Korean national team sooner rather than later. But first, he must navigate the tricky waters of K League 2. It'll be a great learning curve for the young attacker.
Kim Ju-chan

It was a sign of Suwon's desperation towards the end of the season that they came to rely so heavily on a 19-year-old debutant. Manager Yeom often started Kim on the bench, hoping his energy, freshness, and fitness would cause problems against tired opponents late in the season. And Kim rewarded his manager with winning goals against Pohang Steelers and Suwon FC. Overall, the lad born just down the road from Big Bird played 25 times, scoring 5 goals. There'll be pressure on his young shoulders this season but Kim should flourish in the second division. Expect fireworks.

Biggest Question 

Inspired choice or another disaster? One thing is for certain; watching Suwon Samsung Bluewings will be fun in 2024.

Have they made a terrible choice in appointing Yeom Ki-hun as manager?

It isn't Yeom's fault Suwon Samsung Bluewings went down last season. In fact, results and performances improved slightly once his appointment, on a caretaker basis, was confirmed. The problem is Yeom had a front-row seat in seeing how badly run the club is, and he was forced to deny rumors in January he plotted to remove former boss Kim Byung-soo. Why would he even want to be part of this rebuild? Surely he knows he doesn't have the experience to handle the pressure of a gig this big. Or maybe he's supremely confident in his own abilities to return the club he adores back to the big time?

The nagging suspicion is Suwon should have hired a manager with a proven track record to get the team promoted. A win-at-all-costs approach. If Suwon extend their stay in K League 2 after this season, it will be more of a disaster than their original relegation. Perhaps Yeom will prove the doubters wrong, and the Bluewings will slay all before them in a comprehensive promotion campaign. But he needs results immediately, starting with Chungnam Asan FC on Sunday. There's no room for failure. 

Reason to Watch 

There wasn't much to get excited about in Suwon last season. Will it be different in 2024?

Relegation was obviously bitter but it has happened and there's nothing Suwon Samsung can do about it. In an ideal scenario, the Bluewings will enjoy a year away from the top flight, traveling to towns and stadiums they would never have expected to, whilst rekindling some rivalries of a previous generation. Isn't it fun to see a big club take several spins off the beaten track? Their fans can replace Seoul with Asan, Pohang with Cheonan, and Jeonju with Gimpo. The nightmare scenario is, of course, watching this spectacularly fail as the team struggles to beat the likes of Chungbuk Cheongju FC and Ansan Greeners. For the neutral, both outcomes are worth investing in.

Important to note that Suwon's home games will be played in their World Cup Stadium, one of the country's best stadiums, until July. They will then move to Yongin to facilitate pitch repairments at Big Bird.

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