A new provincial derby is born in Asan

Saturday was meant to be spent at home with in-laws, but when plans changed last minute, it was time to examine new options on a mild mid-March day. The choices were whittled down to Sindorim's St Patrick's Day festival or some K League football. I put away the green sweater and boarded the KTX. Destination: Chungnam Asan FC of K League 2.

High-flying Bucheon FC welcomed Ansan Greeners in the only game around Seoul in either division but Chungnam Asan's appeal was two-fold. Firstly, I had never visited the Yi Sun-sin Stadium, named after a 16th-century admiral and military leader who became a national icon for his decisive victories over the vaunted Japanese navy.

Secondly, Asan's opponent was Cheonan City FC, a new club at this level that only became fully professional this season. Previously, Cheonan City competed in the semi-pro National League before joining K League 3. Cheonan's progression through divisions and status has been remarkably quick in recent years.

Moreover, this is something of a local derby as both Asan and Cheonan are next-door cities in South Chungcheong Province sharing a high-speed train station. The football clubs are separated by a mere 14 km and are both reached on the same metro line. In time, this could become a new provincial football derby.

My KTX arrived at Cheonan-Asan Station forty minutes before kick-off but the nearest subway train to take me the final three stops to Onyangoncheon was thirty minutes away. There were two buses that also headed toward central Asan but the Kakao map was calling this a journey close to an hour. In order to make the start of the game, a taxi was ordered to drive the ten kilometers to Yi Sun-sin Stadium.

As anyone who has driven through this part of Asan can attest, traffic is problematic and this was exasperated by the 1:30pm kick-off time. My taxi driver changed lanes in a manic fashion, often pointing out driving violations of other motorists as he swerved between lanes without once using his indicator. When he saw a build-up of cars, his sole reaction was to shout "oh my God" really loud.

He was under the impression, wrongly, that I was anxious to see the teams running out onto the field. This was a driver with a death wish, forcing others to hurry up by aggressively using his horn, and then sending a volley of insults their way as we passed them out. Whatever swear words I picked up watching The Glory on Netflix were reinforced in the back of his cab. When we finally reached the edge of the Sports Complex, he triumphantly pointed out we had made the start of the match.

With that sketchy but admittedly humorous ordeal over, it was time to check out a new stadium. As this was my first visit to Yi Sun-sin, that meant checking in on the Futbology app for a new stadium update. Next up, taking photos of the exterior and then looking at their on and off-field wear at the club store. Face painting and kicking a ball at a giant dartboard to win prizes were still popular after the match got underway.

The stadium is small and simple but a lot of effort has gone into making it unquestionably the home ground of Chungnam Asan FC. Huge banners with the club's crest, certain players, and the season schedule decorated the exterior. Outside the entrance to the West Stand, a small Astroturf pitch surrounded by two running lanes added some nice color.

I kept walking around the exterior walls until I saw the team buses and an open, unmanned gate leading directly to the South Stand. The perfect entry point for a freeloader but given the South Stand was completely vacant throughout the game, it wouldn't take long before you were noticed.

My ticket was for the East Stand (bought online for only 8,000 won) which is where you'll find cheerleaders, families, fans banging cardboard team schedules, and, oddly, the away supporters. Often, the visiting fans are dumped behind the goal separated from the pitch by a running track and kept apart from the home fans by vast, empty seating blocks.

The stand opposite the main stand is always my favorite place to watch football. There are plenty of grounds in Korea with a unique roof or design on the main stand that's better viewed from across the pitch. The best examples are Suwon and Jeju World Cup Stadiums in K League 1 and the homes of Gimcheon Sangmu and Seongnam FC in K League 2. Seoul E-Land's temporary home in Mokdong is unspectacular but the skyline behind the main stand is eye-catching.

At Yi Sun-sin, however, the Cheonan City FC fans occupied the first three rows of the East Stand. A bit of masking tape and a movable barrier was all that separated the two sets of supporters. These were largely ignored as fans crossed over, changing blocks and seats on a regular basis.

A crowd of 3,762 attended the first clash at this level between Chungnam Asan and Cheonan City FC. Fans of both teams were loud, with the cheering team of one male and four females leading the home supporters, who responded by whacking those schedules, handed out for free at the entrance, off their knees.

Cheonan supporters came waving small blue flags and sang when directed by a man with a megaphone. They also had one big banner, some drums, and two bigger flags. Despite their team's struggles at the start of the season and the lack of quality on the field, the away fans were noisy and attention-grabbing.

Unfortunately, their struggles continued as they fell to a late goal, but this was, arguably, their best performance of the season. Cheonan is now pointless after four games and boasts a goal difference of -9. Happier times for Chungnam Asan, who recorded their first win of 2023 and ended the weekend in 10th spot with four points from four games.

So, was it worth going all the way down to see Chungnam Asan FC? Absolutely. This stadium and city might top your bucket list of places to visit in Korea, but a new ground is always worth visiting. And who knows, this might go on to become a regular and fiercely contested provincial derby.

Below is a selection of my photographs from Chungnam Asan FC v Cheonan City FC.


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