Interview: Jade North - An Australian In Korea

Incheon United's newest import is settling into life in the gritty port city...
South Korean club Incheon United signed Australian international defender Jade North in the winter, taking advantage of the new 'three plus one' rule that allows clubs to sign an extra foreign player as long as he comes from an AFC member nation.

North is struggling for game time under Incheon's new coach, Ilja Petcovic, but with the team level on points at the top of the K-League, the 27-year-old understands the situation and is waiting for his opportunity.

In the meantime, the former Newcastle Jets star found time to talk to about this new chapter in his career.

Goal: Why did you leave Australia? 

North: Basically, I had to take it to a new level. I was in a comfort zone back in Australia.

The national team coach, Pim Verbeek, told me that if I wanted to be in the World Cup squad then I had to be playing my football outside [Australia], preferably in Europe, but because of the new Asian rule then Asia became a perfect opportunity.

I spoke to Pim and he had coached the national team here and he said that that the league’s probably not that much better than the A-League but that they train a lot harder, so it was a great chance for me to push myself and get the extra edge. 

So he said that if you don’t leave the A-League then you will jeopardise your World Cup chances?

Yes, definitely, and he has made that clear a few times in the media. There have been a few boys who have come back to Australia from Europe early and Pim has said that their jerseys are not guaranteed and I think that is a fair statement. 

I know exactly what Pim is talking about now. The training here is a lot harder. It is full-on and full-time. Some days we don’t get a day-off during the week. It’s living and breathing football. It has taken me a while to adapt to training.

Back in Australia, we have a lot of recovery time. Here it is a different culture and you need to adapt. I think that I have done that quite well. It is just a matter of getting some game time so I can show what I can really do.

You started this season as a right-back. That isn’t your usual position...

For the past three years I’ve been a central defender and I played there with the national team. I have played right-back three or four years ago but to come here and play, it is a very physical position. It took me a little time to get used to that position but it is like riding a bike, you never forget. 

When Incheon tried to sign you, was it as a central defender?

I was told that I’d be a central defender. I know last year they played most of their games with a back three but they obviously saw DVDs of me playing in the middle.

But now, you haven’t played since March...

After the second game, I had to go back for a World Cup qualifier. Incheon had a cup game. That’s football.

It’s a hard situation. The boy who has come in as right-back has done really well. And Incheon have been doing really well and getting results.

It is a matter of time and waiting for the right opportunity. You want the team to do well but at the same time, I came here to play football.

Have you been surprised at how well the team has been doing? 

Yes, last year I think they just missed the play-offs so anything better than that is a big improvement. But until now I think we have been playing the weaker teams and we haven’t been tested too much. We’ve got some of the big teams coming up in the next few weeks. After that, it’ll give us a good indication of where we are.

Incheon don’t score or concede many goals...

From the games I’ve seen, we’re not going to score that many but we’re not going to concede many, it is the way we player. Credit to the players, they get half-a-chance and then put it away. 

Have you experienced any culture shock on and off the pitch? 

Yes, the food, the weather, the way people are with each other. It’s very respectful, especially to your elders.

In football, too, if you’re a young player then you don’t have much chance to voice your opinion. Back home, if you’re young and good enough then you can go all the way. Here, if you’re young and even if you’re right then you still have to listen. 

But it’s good that things are getting better with the boys. It’s taken time but now we joke around.

Maybe compared to Australia, players are quieter on the pitch.

Yes. I’m used to the practice that if you give the ball away, another player will let you know not to do it again. I’ve always been big on communication.

It’s hard now with the other players and even to say ‘to your left’ or ‘behind’ is difficult. As a defender you have to control the space in front of you and next to you. That’s been tough. 

You socialise with the other foreign players?

Yes. That’s who I’m with every day. The Serbian boys speak English and I always have a laugh with those guys. If it wasn’t for them, it would be very difficult because of the language barrier.

How is the coach?

It is his first season too. It’s probably the communication barrier that stops him from talking to me and a few of the other boys. He has his way of dealing with things and it is just getting used to his style of football. 

How about the K-League in general? 

There’s more running without the ball. In my old team, we kept the ball a lot and played it out from the back. Here it is very physical in the sense that there is a lot of running and players will go at you for the whole game. In Australia, if they are one-on-one with you, they tend to switch the player to the other side. There are so many little differences between the two leagues that I’ve found very interesting. 

And the Incheon fans?  

Very good. Very vocal and they are passionate about their team. It’s great. It’s just a pity that the stadium is so huge. 

Incheon are building a smaller purpose-built stadium.

That will be great. 

Compared to England, fans here are more forgiving of mistakes and supportive in general.

I think that’s part of their friendly culture. In China, I remember when Mark Viduka was warming up and the local fans applauded him. In Korea especially, the fans are respectful.  

What do you think about Incheon's young striking sensation, Yoo Byung-soo?  

He’s done very well. He’s a strong boy and he knows where the goal is. Give him half a chance and he’ll score. I think that he has got a bright future. He just needs to keep his head on his shoulders and let his football do the talking and I'm sure he’s going to do that. I wish him all the best.   

What’s the next step after Korea?

I want to keep myself in the Australia squad. Korea and Australia are a long way from Europe. Few people will go out of their way to watch the A-League or the K-League. That’s the disadvantage that the two countries have as well as Japan and China. I know that these leagues are growing but Korea is a stepping stone for me for bigger and better things. 

There are three World Cup qualifiers in June. Will you be in the squad? 

I’d like to say I’m confident but you have to be playing games. I had a chat with Pim the other day and he knows my situation very well. I don’t think I’ve put a foot wrong with him in the past. He’s going to call a big squad to see who’s in good condition. I’m quietly confident.

It is probably a good thing for you that your national team coach knows Korea well. 

That is a big plus. When I was deciding what to do, knowing that he had coached here and Guus [Hiddink] too, I decided to go for it. It gives us something in common.

He knows that if you play in Korea, you’ll be fit. 

Exactly, you have to be super-fit.

Sometimes when the referee blows for full-time, almost the entire team will collapse to the floor. 

Yes, that’s the mentality, to keep running until you fall over. I just hope that I am not one of those falling over.

John Duerden

Asia Editor