The K-League season draws to a close this weekend and all four Australian centre-backs have played their part. Four separate top division teams have satisfied their cravings for a commanding Australian defender. This in itself is a compliment to their abilities as Korean teams have a limited number of foreign signings.
Jeonbuk Motor’s star Alex Wilkinson enjoyed the most successful season of the quartet, a steadying influence in their title-winning season. In stark contrast Gyeongnam and Luke Devere failed to turn over a 3-1 deficit against rampant Gwangju in the relegation play-off.
Rob Cornthwaite and Aleksandar Jovanovic’s sides Jeonnam Dragons and Jeju United respectively both had seasons that petered out to comfortable mid-table finishes. Both teams marred with a frustration of missing out by small margins, the split nature for the last five K-League games did not make for an entertaining finish to their seasons.
All four players now look to the future amibitions but in very different circumstances.
The rise of Alex Wilkinson has been nothing short of remarkable. In 2012 he joined big spending, yet relatively unknown, K league club Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors for what was then a hefty fee of $450,000. The move to Korea from Central Coast Mariners, where his dependability and solid defending skills for seven years turned him into a club legend, came as a shock. He has proven to be a bargain, helping the big spending Jeonju side win a third league title in six seasons.
Not only that, in a country where there is usually very little to distinguish between the clubs, Jeonbuk won the league by an astonishing 14 points, including a run which stretched to only one defeat in the last 16 games. Wilkinson has been at the foundation of this success, being an integral member of a defence that kept clean sheet after clean sheet, only conceding 22 goals throughout the calendar season.
It is no surprise then that Wilkinson’s excellent form has earned him a place on the official K league Team of the Season announced the other week. As with Central Coast Mariners and more recently for the national team, Wilkinson has been dependable, strong, composed and a fantastic influence on the field, not just merely through his ability to defend.
Jeonbuk Motors are bankrolled by the car giant Hyundai and with rumours that the club is sending scouts overseas to find a multimillion dollar striker, it is likely that Wilkinson’s defending skills will be complimented by a big name European striker.
It has been a fantastic season for Alex Wilkinson. Champions of Korea, K league Team of the Year, and a shock starting place against Chile in the first World Cup game, where he became the first player in footballing history to see his off the line clearance from Chile’s Eduardo Vargas be subject to FIFA’s goal line technology. Yet the whirlwind season for the 30 year old could get even better. Expected to feature in Ange Postecoglou’s final squad for January’s Asian Cup spectacle, who would bet against the Sydneysider using his experience of Asian football to help the Socceroos keep some vitally needed clean sheets.
Aleksandar Jovanovic’s unorthodox route into Korean football via Serbia, eventually saw him make the step up to island-dwellers Jeju United. His first full season at a highly competitive level can undoubtedly be labelled a success.
Speaking to other K-League fanatics, some questions were raised whether he could cope with the techinically focused style of play here. However, his record this season speaks for itself, as he has been a mainstay in one of the leagues’ most frugal defences. The towering centre-back can rightly feel frustrated not to be looking towards a Champions League campaign with Jeju next year, but the teams attacking options failed to deliver. We witnessed Jovanovic play in a 2-1 defeat at Busan this season. What stood out for us was his presence on the pitch and also surprising command and apparent ear of his team mates, which we have suspected to be a problem for many foreign players in this league. To seriously stake a claim for an international start he will have to work on his reading of the game and turn of pace, this was shown as a nippy Busan striker showed great sharpness and guile to steal in and score the opening goal.
Jovanovic’s first goal in Korea came against fellow Australian Rob Cornthwaite to confirm a 2-0 victory. We’re looking forward to seeing him develop further next season, as Jeju look to build a defence around him capable of pushing for the Champions League. Success here would surely put him in the mind of Postecoglu as an alternative.
Early November for us was a K-League weekender to Jeonnam to interview Rob Cornthwaite. The former Adelaide stalwart cut a frustrated figure on the bench as his side looked shaky at the back against lowly Seongnam. Perhaps slightly sadistically, we were delighted to see a Jeonnam defender taken off injured early on for Cornthwaite to get involved. With nothing to play for at that stage of the season, neither the game nor Jeonnam’s defensive soundness improved greatly. However, Cornthwaite did bring a different dimension to his team’s somewhat predictable and flat performance. Pinging well-placed passes through the midfield, a more direct style of play caused problems.
We had noted Cornthwaite’s famous scoring record when given an international chance, and he came close to scoring an equalizer showing good movement. His awareness was far superior to those around him and we were left confused as to why he has been selected so intermittently this season. We got the impression that as with other players communication both with the club and teammates was a struggle and perhaps this frustration led to the 29 year old not pushing for a new contract.
Many countries in Asia abide by the foreign player transfer cap, although his reliability, cultured play and ability to nick a goal surely left many options open to him. Four years in South West Korea came to an end this week as he signed for Malaysian runners up Selangor, adding to an already tight defence and joining fellow Australian Steve Pantelidis. Questions may be asked, whether this move could potentially see an end to any remaining international dreams. However, this is clearly the right move considering he was being overlooked at Jeonnam. More time on the ball in this league will play to his strengths, along with hopefully a more consistent selection policy.
Whilst this year has been the best of Alex Wilkinson’s career, Luke DeVere will likely look back at this season as one he will want to quickly forget. Damaged by club political issues, sadly a frequent feature throughout Korean football, a persistent knee injury and a relegation battle with his underperforming club Gyeongnam, DeVere will be looking to move on now the K league season has come to an end.
Whereas Jeonbuk Motors have romped away with the league, Gyeongnam was mired in a two legged playoff relegation battle which eventually saw DeVere’s side sent to the second division for next year.
DeVere who is highly rated by the Socceroos bosses after playing throughout the different youth levels took what was seen to be a risky move coming to Korea whilst still establishing himself as an A-League defender. Fox pundit Robbie Slater at the time said he “lacked ambition”. Whilst no one could doubt DeVere’s bravery in taking such a move, sadly for him it has not panned out how he would have envisaged this season despite being excellent in his first two seasons.
Political issues have affected the amount of game time he has played with him spending a large time on the bench. A new Chairman and Manager appointed last season were not kind to DeVere and indeed when the K League Report team watched him against Seongnam in October, he was harshly subbed at half time. A knee injury has also impaired him at times not looking the defender he once was.
The sad irony is that had things gone right for him, he may well have been a shoe-in for a place in Ange Postecoglou’s side with the Socceroos boss being a keen admirer of DeVere from the time spent together at Brisbane Roar. At 25, DeVere has time to make amends although his next move is vital if his potential is to be fulfilled.
As Korea looks towards Australia and the impending Asian Cup, excitement will build ahead of the crucial group fixture between Australia and Korea. The inter-twining of Australians, especially Wilkinson in the K-League could play into Australia’s hands with the understanding it brings. We look forward to next season and the transfer window, which hopefully will see more Australians given a chance here. Perhaps even an offensive player which would be great to see.
The K League report are two English football correspondents, Jack Hand and Peter Hampshire, who report on Korean football and life. You can follow them on Twitter: @KLeagueReport