Nick Ansell learnt many things in his just-finished spell in South Korea but one lesson stands out: how great it would be if Australia could follow the example of the East Asian nation and have a competitive second division complete with promotion and relegation.
The centre-back, who is set to return to the A-League with former club Melbourne Victory on a one-year-deal, signed with the recently-relegated Jeonnam Dragons in 2019 and after a successful season in Korea’s southwest, moved east to Gyeongnam FC, a club that finished second in the K-League in 2018 before being relegated the following season.
“My time in Korea was really great,” Ansell told The World Game. “My first year at Jeonnam was probably the highlight for me. We had some really good foreign players and really nice Korean players. Then I came back in January and I had the opportunity to move to Gyeongnam and I thought it was a good opportunity.
“Everything was really good for the first six months but towards the end I wasn’t playing. I told the club that I wanted to move on. They wanted me to stay but it was better for me and my career to leave.”
When the offer to head to South Korea’s second division came almost two years ago, Ansell turned to former Melbourne Victory team-mate Adrian Leijer who had played in the K-League 2 with Suwon FC, for advice.
“I spoke to him. He said that it was a really competitive league and certainly not a holiday.”
The fact that the South Korean team that won the Asia U-23 Championships had a number of talents active in the second tier, which started full promotion and relegation in 2013, is evidence that the standard is high. “There are a lot of good young players there. The second division gives them more games, choices and opportunities. If Australia had a league like that, it would be fantastic for us.
“The standard is really good, it is similar to the A-League. Some big teams have come down and there is not much difference between the teams in the second division and the bottom half of the K-League. In Korea, it is a different style to Australia and very fast, end to end. It is perhaps not as in-depth tactically as the A-League but the one-on-one battles are really tough. It is good to experience and playing overseas really tests and improves you.”
While media reports about Ansell’s performances were favourable, the player has little idea as to why he was left out of the starting eleven by Gyeongnam coach and 2002 World Cup hero, Seol Ki-hyun.
“I thought I was doing a job for the team and overall, I thought I played well in Korea. I didn’t understand why I was not playing, other Korean players were asking me what was going on. I couldn’t give an answer as I didn’t know the reasons why. So I decided that enough is enough.”
Many people would have stayed until the end of the season and collected the money but Ansell was keen to get a fresh start as soon as possible and he is already back home in Australia.
“I decided that it was better for me and my future to look for another opportunity. I cancelled my contract so I lost my last three months of pay. I could have stayed and taken the money but I am 26 and need to be playing and looking after my career. Money isn’t everything.”