There’s always something satisfying when a new player who nobody knows anything about scores a vital last-minute goal. Lee Ki-je came from a land far away with little fanfare and then became an instant hit with the Newcastle Jets faithful last weekend with a late, late penalty equaliser against the champions of Asia.
Maybe, just maybe, this South Korean could be one of those gems that clubs pick up from time to time.
It is to be hoped that the rest of his career in the Hyundai A-League continues in the same vein as this is a player, still young, who started life in Japan in impressive fashion before losing his way a little.
“He came for a trial at Shimizu S-Pulse in the preseason of 2012 and immediately I was impressed,” says Afshin Ghotbi, the man who signed him for the J-League club.
“It was obvious at the start that his left foot is at the highest level. We were in desperate need of a left back… and the club agreed to sign him.” It was a good move for all concerned.
Australians will remember Kim Jin-su, the impressive left-back, perhaps the best in his position at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup – that slip against Tomi Juric in the final notwithstanding.
Kim kept Lee out of his favoured position in the 2011 Under-20 World Cup when the young Taeguk Warriors got to the last 16. Lee still played though, he just moved up to the left-midfield spot.
“Most South Korean players are very flexible,” Ghotbi, who served as assistant South Korea coach to Pim Verbeek at the 2007 Asian Cup and was part of Guus Hiddink’s coaching staff in 2002. recalls.
“They have to play many positions in their youth football and Lee can play in the left midfield position, and I even used him in central defence in reserve team games.”
Lee was on the pitch when the last 16 tie with Spain went to penalties. He missed that spot kick as the Europeans ran out 7-6 winners after 120 minutes of football finished goalless. Such a memory makes his decision to step up in injury time against Western Sydney Wanderers all the more impressive.
Lee may be shy but he has courage. It was a gamble that paid off and Lee’s name was in the headlines in Australia.
“He is a real team player,” said Lee Kwang-jong, the man in charge of Korea’s Under 20 team in 2011. “You can ask him to play almost any position, any role, and he will just do it. Technically, he is very good and his hard-working.”
The challenge for the player is to recapture his first season form for Shimizu. Lee was excellent in 2012, slotting into the left-back position for S-Pulse with the minimum of fuss and plenty of grace. The club is situated in the one-time Japanese hotbed of Shizuoka.
Fans there know their football and knew Lee had a bright future.
“His crosses come with such pace and swerve that causes all kinds of problems for opponents. These crosses from the left are his best quality,” says Ghotbi. “KJ is also a specialist on set pieces.”
At one time in 2012, Shimizu, a club that does not have the resources of some of its big city rivals, was riding high in second spot in the table and also reached the Nabisco Cup Final, with Lee playing a major part in both.
Second season syndrome set in however and it was never quite as good for Lee again as Ghotbi remembers. “KJ struggled with injuries, confidence and concentration in his second season at S-Pulse, and he could never match the expectation he had set for himself in the first season.”
It should be remembered that the player was just 20 when he headed overseas. And to be honest, if he had matched his first season in subsequent campaigns, he would now be at one of Japan’s big boys or even in Europe.
As it is, after rumours of a move to the MLS in the United States, he is now ready for a second stint overseas.
Still just 23 but with plenty of experience, he could be ready to achieve the consistency in Australia that he did not in Japan. If so, the Jets could have a star on their hands.