Ji Dong-Won exclusive: Sunderland struggles, his nomadic career and THAT Manchester City goal

‘Sessegnon….for Jiiiiiii…..’

Sunday, 20th September 2020, 3:00 pm

There have been few better moments in Sunderland’s recent memory than that.

A star-studded Manchester City side, bankrolled by billions, were starting to stamp their authority on the English game.

But on one crisp January evening, the unlikeliest of sources meant they came undone on Wearside.

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Ji Dong-Won exclusive: Sunderland struggles, his nomadic career and THAT Manchester City goal

As Ji Dong-Won rounded Joe Hart to tap home the winner, little did he know he was scoring his final Sunderland goal.

Yet despite his modest goal return, Ji remains a cult hero on Wearside.

So what happened, what went wrong, and what came next?

We caught up with the striker to reflect on his incident-packed spell on Wearside - and what the future may hold.

‘My dream came true’

It was 2011 when Ji arrived on Wearside, plucked from obscurity by then-manager Steve Bruce.

The young forward has delivered a modest return for club side Jeonnam Dragons, but it was his performance in the 2011 Asian Cup that caught the eye of the Black Cats.

A deal was struck in June and, come the first game of the season, the South Korean striker found himself on the bench for a trip to Liverpool.

“I remember my first game, in Anfield and I can’t find the words,” recalls the striker

“It was a big honour, and I just tried to enjoy the moment.

“It was my dream, and my dream came true.

“To play in England… I was so honoured to play there.

“But I was so young. I was just 20 years old and it was my first time experiencing playing in Europe.

“It was always going to be a hard time for me.”

It’s easy to forget that Ji was that young when he arrived on the banks of the Wear. Both on and off the field, he found the adaptation period tricky.

Appearances were mainly restricted to appearances from the bench, while fitness issues – coupled with the departure of Bruce and arrival of Martin O’Neill – severely restricted his impact on the field.

There was also the high-profile registration issue that meant the South Korean played five Premier League games despite not gaining the required international clearance – not the fault of the player, of course, but it was an incident that placed the striker under a level of scrutiny he had never felt before.

And that – coupled with the usual problems associated with settling into a new club – made it a difficult few months for the youngster.

“It was quite a shock - the culture, the weather and the Premier League,” recalls Ji.

“The city, the fans and the facilities, they were absolutely at the top.

“But for me, it was a shock.”

Yet amid all the struggles of his first few months on Wearside, there was one moment. That one moment.

‘He’s round the ‘keeper – and he’s done it!’

Ji’s defining moment in a Sunderland shirt, immortalised in that now iconic Martin Tyler commentary.

In a breathtaking end to a pulsating second half, where the Black Cats had shown energy and grit to keep big-spending Manchester City at bay, the South Korean struck at the death.

Over 40,000 fans danced in jubilation as the South Korean basked in their adoration.

“Unbelievable,” says Ji.

“Sometimes I watch that game, again and again, and how can I even describe it?

“It was the best goal in my life. I cannot forget it.”

It felt like it was the start of something for club and player, but it was not to be. Ji once again found himself down the pecking order and out of favour as managers came and went.

Two loans spells to FC Augsburg in Germany followed before an unlikely source handed him a glimmer of hope.

“Paolo Di Canio? Yes,” he laughs.

“Actually, he was a good manager for me because he gave me the confidence and told me how to play.

“But he had a problem with the players, which was the main thing.

“It was unlucky.”

Di Canio placed faith in the striker but, as is so often the case, a chance in manager meant a change in circumstance.

The arrival of Gus Poyet plunged Ji out of the first-team picture, and into a tricky spell in his career.

Time in the wilderness

Ji left Sunderland in 2014 following the expiration of his three-year contract, and earned what looked to be an attractive move to Borussia Dortmund.

The German giants handed the South Korean a four-year contract, but he was mainly limited to appearances with Dortmund’s second string – and it was at Signal Iduna Park where his injuries problems first began to seriously rear their head.

A persistent, niggling knee injury thwarted Ji’s progress at Dortmund. So too did it affect his momentum at Augsburg, whom he joined on a permanent deal just five months after arriving at Dortmund.

Across a four-year spell with Augsburg, the forward mustered just ten goals in 96 appearances.

There were high points – including a brace in a 2-1 win against former employers Dortmund – but the knee problems kept on coming.

“It was very difficult for me,” admits Ji.

“I had a couple of days training, then a couple of days out. I’d have to just sit in the stadium and see the guys and I couldn’t play.

“It was horrible for me, but this is life and I have to win this moment.”

A brighter future?

The signs are slightly brighter now, though.

Ji signed for Mainz last summer and, despite making only four appearances – all of which came after the enforced break to coronavirus – there is hope that the German side have got to the bottom of the South Korean’s injury woes.

And that mean the forward’s focus is simply on what he can affect on the field – and finally fulfilling the potential that placed him on Sunderland’s radar in the summer of 2011.

“I have to do more,” says Ji.

“I’ve not done enough to play or to score the goals, so I have to do more.

“I’m still only 29, so I have to do more. More, more, more.

“I haven’t played so much, but I’m ready to settle down,” he continued.

“The players, the city, the team - I’m comfortable here.”

“Last year I played four games, mainly substituting, so this season I hope is much better than last season.

“My knee is fit and is back to 100 per cent. I can do my best and do more for my team.”

While Ji is hopeful a brighter future is on the horizon on a personal level, so too is he hopeful his former club can return to their former glory.

And when they do, the South Korean is keen to sample that famous Wearside atmosphere just once more.

“I know now they play in League One. I couldn’t believe that this club isn’t playing Premier League, and I hope they win promotion again because I want to see them back in the Premier League.

“When I retire from my football career, then I want to visit Sunderland one more time.

“I want to see the stadium again, feel that atmosphere and just look again.”

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