‘Unbelievable – it was the best goal in my life, I can’t forget it’
There have been few better moments in Sunderland’s recent history than that.
A star-studded Manchester City side, bankrolled by b i l l i o n s , we re s ta r t i n g to stamp their authority on the English game.
But on o ne crisp January evening, the unlikeliest of sources meant they came undone on Wearside.
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, the South Korean remains a cult hero on Wearside.
So what happened, what went wrong, and what came next?
We re c e ntl y c aug ht 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 had 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, Ji found himself on the bench for a trip to Liverpool.
“I r e m e m b e r my f i r s t 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 arr ive d o n th e ba n k s o f th e 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 highp ro f i l e re g i s t rat i o n i s s u e 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 breath-taking end to a pulsating second half, where the Black Cats had shown energy and grit to keep bigspending Manchester City at bay, the South Korean struck at the death. Over 40,000 fans danced in jubilation as he 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 loan spells to FC Augsburg in Germany followed before an unlikely source handed him a glimmer of
“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 h e h ad a p rob l e m 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 change 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 fouryea r c o ntrac t , but h e wa s 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 D o r t m u n d . S o t o o d i d it affect his momentum at Augsburg, whom he joined o n a p e r m a n e nt d ea l j u s t 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 h ad a c oup l e o f d ays 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.”