Thankful Bae Junho's admits Stoke City 'worry' after marathon season

Bae Junho has emerged as one of the first names on the teamsheet at Stoke City. -Credit:Nathan Stirk/Getty Images
Bae Junho has emerged as one of the first names on the teamsheet at Stoke City. -Credit:Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

It was on March 2 last year when Bae Junho played the first game of his own personal marathon season. A 4-0 win for South Korea under-20s against Oman kickstarted a campaign which would see him play at a World Cup, cross continents and become a crowd favourite and contender for player of the year at Stoke City.

The 20-year-old playmaker has been in 75 match day squads variously for Stoke, Daejeon Hana Citizen and his country. He was summoned for the under-23s Asian Cup last month too, which also served as qualifiers for this summer's Olympics, but was needed in Stoke's push to stay in the Championship. They missed out without him but Stoke stayed up. There will be no trip to Paris and no shot at a rare ticket out of obligatory military service but others opportunities will still come and it means he can spend pre-season with Stoke and, probably even more importantly, fit in some kind of breather.

He has been able to impact some Championship games more than others with his craft, recently starring in a 3-0 home win over Plymouth and from the bench in a 1-1 draw at Sheffield Wednesday, and he will want to improve his goal and assists output next term but his relentless approach, high energy levels and skill have helped set the team's mood in almost every outing over the last couple of months.

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It is no mean feat to have done that at his age and experience, with a language barrier in a new country and in a team that has been struggling.

"We confirmed our stay in the Championship with a win over Southampton," he told South Korean media this week. "It wasn't an easy journey.

"I think these were not easy games. Each and every game, this is my first season in Europe. It didn't seem easy as I had to adjust to the team but also worry about staying in the team. Still, I think it's fortunate that the players are helping me more and I feel like I've adapted quicker because of that."

It's clear he is popular in the changing room. Ben Wilmot explained yesterday how he has been able to retire Google Translate from their conversations even if Junho can understand more English than he can speak just at the moment. He's still having multiple lessons every week.

Alex Neil, who brought him in last August, had talked about early conversations on the Clayton Wood training ground, when Junho would smile and then ping in a corner with left or right foot. He knew language might make life a bit tricky at first but the football was never going to be a problem.

Steven Schumacher, who arrived in mid-December, and his team of coaches from Merseyside must have been another hurdle. "I’m not too sure he always understands me fully," admitted Schumacher in January before explaining how he would pull him aside to talk things through individually with the help of video clips.

Junho has primarily been used on the left of attack but there have been games when he has been tried in a number 10 role or number 8. Schumacher has tried to find the best way to utilise what he brings to the table while acknowledging there are still areas of his game which are work in progress.

The player recognises that too, saying this week: "First of all, I think the Championship is a league that is a bit better physically. So that part was difficult, but on the other hand, I think it was a time when I could make up for my physical weakness. I think my performances have improved little by little as I have improved a lot.

"I'm really thankful that they allowed me to play the game I wanted to play. I think I always played without pressure because the coach trusted me. I think that’s why I was able to perform well. What I learned a lot from the coach is how to take a defensive position, and since I had language communication problems at first, I had a lot of trouble taking up the position. I have been helped a lot in that regard.

"I think I've improved further and performed better because they told me to play like this, taking advantage of my strengths."

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