Jason Burt: Reading V Tottenham

One of South Korea's favourite sons knows this is his last chance to reach for the stars
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The Independent Online

It appears it wasn't just for his football ability that Steve Coppell signed Seol Ki-hyeon for £1.5m last summer. The two also share the same kind of dust-dry, dead-pan humour which, given one is a 51-year-old Scouser from Norris Green and the other is a 27-year-old midfielder from Jeongseon on the east coast of South Korea, shows that such traits are universal.

As Seol wanders into the rather modest canteen at Reading's expanding training ground there is, it seems, horror on his face. "Where is the translator?" he asks. "I can't do an interview without a translator." "But," I reply, starting to feel a little flustered, "you're speaking English now." "Oh," Seol says. "They are lines that I practise."

He then grins. It's a grin that follows many of his subsequent pronouncements and is confirmation that, yes, he is joking. Take his reply as to how he has found the transition to Berkshire from the Black Country and Wolverhampton Wanderers, where he has spent the past two seasons. Were they difficult? "Not really. I was in Wolverhampton and they don't really speak English there. They speak it here, though." Communication was clearer with some of his old team-mates than others. "When Kenny Miller spoke I couldn't understand a word," Seol says of the Scottish striker. "I had to ask the other players 'is that English?' "

Needless to say, his own English is impeccable, which is all the more impressive as he couldn't speak the language before moving here. There was also talk that he had found it easier in the south, as he is close to the biggest South Korean community in Britain - the estimated 20,000 who live in New Malden, known as Little Korea, to the capital's south-west.

Seol has indeed been to the area many times and confesses he doesn't have to pay for such things as haircuts or meals - the shop owners refuse his money - but he doesn't want anyone to think he has failed to settle. But haven't he and his wife, and their two children, found the food a problem? "Not at all," Seol answers - before claiming, unconvincingly, that his favourite dish is fish and chips. And drink? "Guinness." Really? "Yes, I like it."

It's knock-about stuff. Seol, however, is deadly serious about the business he is in and, in reply to a simple question about what impact he feels he has made on the Premiership, he delivers the following impassioned statement. "You know I've been in Europe for six years," he says, also taking into consideration his four seasons in Belgium. "I've played in the Champions' League and Uefa Cup and it was all good experience. But it's time for me to really show what I can do. When I came here I said to myself, 'this is my last chance'. I'm grateful to be playing in the Premiership. But everything was ready. Physically, mentally. Everything. I wasn't frightened. I worked very hard in pre-season. I say it again: this was my last chance. Believe me, that's how I looked at it. I didn't have to change much, but to change something changed everything."

Still, joining Reading was a tricky decision especially as Seol had offers from other top-flight clubs. "It wasn't just my first time in the Premiership but the team's too," he says. "We saw Wigan and West Ham do well but if it doesn't happen it's hard and I had to think about that. I wanted to make the move up but if you play badly and get relegated it means nothing."

The experience of another club has haunted him. "Look at Sunderland," he says. "They won the League, everyone was happy but then in one season in the Premiership they lost everything - the manager, players, confidence. And now they are struggling in the Championship." Indeed, Sunderland were on Seol's mind just 21 minutes into the opening game. Reading were 2-0 down to Middlesbrough. "I was thinking, 'oh, this is Premiership football. It's going to be 5-0 today and we're going to struggle like Sunderland'. But after that it was exciting, unbelievable." Reading went on to win 3-2 - and Seol was man of the match.

What was Coppell's reaction? "He just came in, calm, and said 'well done boys. You played well'." That's all? "Yes." It's a measured approach he appreciates even if the other players were bouncing off the walls shouting. It's also the way Coppell sold Reading to Seol. "He just told me he wasn't going to buy many players - just the ones he needed," he said. "He doesn't say that much, you know. He's very, very cool. Whether we play badly or have an exciting match. He doesn't say much to me but I think he likes me. He puts me in the team and there's only one thing I can do for him, and that's work hard.

"We've no stars. We haven't changed many things. Football is not just for one player and we play together, we share as a group. It's been virtually the same team for the past season and they know each other well and know how to help each other. I know English football now and the Reading players knew me before I arrived as I've played against them."

After the Middlesbrough match there were many messages of congratulations - from friends, family and from Lee Young-pyo, his countryman and full-back with Tottenham Hotspur, Reading's opponents today. "I have spoken to Lee many times," Seol says. "He told me I would find it easier in the Premiership than the Championship because there is more skill."

Seol is one of only three South Koreans playing in England. The other is Manchester United's Park Ji-Sung and although it was Seol who arrived first, he admits he has been overshadowed. Now he wants that to change. "I just thought to myself, 'If he can do that, I can do that as well'," Seol says of Park's success. "I wasn't scared and that helped me play."

But it has perhaps gnawed away at him a little that Park has usurped him. After all, it was Seol who was regarded as the natural successor to Cha Bum-Keun, the Koreans' Footballer of the Century, and that appeared to be confirmed when he famously scored against Italy in the 2002 World Cup.

But he hasn't always chosen the easiest route. At the end of his time as a college player, Seol was told to go into Japan's J League, the step most Koreans take. Instead he moved to Europe. First it was to Antwerp, then Anderlecht, scoring a 12-minute hat-trick on his debut. At Wolves his career stalled and it meant he played a peripheral role - with two substitute appearances - at the last World Cup.

Reading's season, after its brilliant start, has also stalled a little. Given their run of games - Chelsea, Arsenal, Portsmouth and Liverpool twice - it has not been unexpected. But five defeats will have shaken confidence. The first of that sequence, at home to Chelsea, also involved the horrific injury to Petr Cech. Seol says the Reading players have obviously discussed what happened. "It was just bad luck," he says. "I don't think it will ever happen again, especially with two goalkeepers going off."

For him, and Reading, the focus is clear. "Just to stay in the Premiership," Seol says. "I do believe this is my last chance so it helps me. I stick to that belief. It means I want to win all the more." That, clearly, is no laughing matter.

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