This January, Alex Wilkinson will be a pivotal part of Ange Postecoglou’s plans to win the 2015 Asian Cup on home soil. The rise of the Sydneysider has been nothing short of remarkable. In 2012 he joined big spending, yet relatively unknown K League club Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors for what was then a hefty fee of $450,000. The move to Korea from Central Coast Mariners, where his dependability and solid defending skills for seven years turned him into a club legend, came as a shock to many. He has proven to be a bargain for the Jeonju side, helping them to win a third league title in six seasons.
Wilkinson has been at the foundation of this success, becoming an integral member of a defence that produced clean sheet after clean sheet, only conceding 22 goals throughout season. In the first of our two-part interview, we sat down with the 30-year-old to discuss his remarkable achievements with Jeonbuk, his views on Korean football, and what the future potentially holds.
Jack Hands: It has been a whirlwind 12 months for you; your Jeonbuk are K-League champions, you were named in the league’s team of the year, and you earned a starting appearance in the Socceroos’ opening World Cup match. What has been your highlight?
Alex Wilkinson: It’s been a fantastic year for me, the best of my career without a doubt. The World Cup was an amazing experience. To represent my country at a World Cup was a dream come true. I was so happy to make the final squad of 23 but then to start and play 90 minutes in all three games was unbelievable. We played against some wonderful teams and players and the experience as a whole made me a better player.
Domestically in Korea it has also been a great year. To win the K-League by 14 points is a huge achievement considering it is usually quite a close league. Then to be named in the K-League Team of the Year was such an honour. The team always comes first and without them I would never have had a chance to be selected in that team. Receiving personal accolades is always nice and this was one of the highlights of my career to date.
You made your big move to Jeonbuk Motors in 2012. In the past some people have criticised Australian players who move to Asia; Luke DeVere especially was told he had “a lack of ambition” for joining Gyeongnam FC. What would you say in response to those who believe a move to Asia is a waste of Australian talent?
I think every player is different. I think if you are a young player doing well in Australia then you should push to make a move to Europe. Most European clubs these days try and target Aussie players when they are teenagers or early twenties. If you are a bit older then I think Asia is a great option. For me personally, moving to Korea has been great for my career. I have thoroughly enjoyed my two and a half years at Jeonbuk and I am very happy that I made the move. Playing in Korea has helped me grow as a player and improve my game.
What would you describe as the main difference between Korean and Australian football?
I get asked this question a lot and I find it very difficult to compare the leagues. I actually think both leagues are quite similar. Both leagues are physical; a lot of people don’t think Korean football would be physical but I think it is definitely one of the most physical leagues in Asia. I think in Korea there are many players who are technically very good. The football is usually end to end with lots of attacking. In Australia they put a lot of emphasis on the tactical side of the game. Lots of video work and shape training sessions, which is not always replicated in Korea.
Although Jeonbuk Motors did spend heavily this season, it’s still unusual to see a Korean team storm the league in the way you did. Why do you think you were so strong this season?
I think we had very good depth this year across the board. In every position we had three or four players that could play in the best eleven. I think this was key to our success, because throughout the year there are always going to be times when certain players aren’t available. If you have quality players to step into the team when this happens it makes a huge difference. We also had great team spirit, where all the players got on really well both on and off the pitch. That helped to make a great team.
Are you confident for mounting a strong AFC Champions League challenge next year?
After winning the league this year I know the club are desperate to do well in the ACL next season. Jeonbuk came so close to winning it in 2011 so it is definitely something the club wants to achieve. I think if we can keep much of our squad from this year, then we can mount a serious challenge. Unfortunately we’ll lose a few key players to military service, but providing we can replace them I think we have a great chance of doing well in the competition.
With Western Sydney Wanderer’s ACL win and rising A-League crowds, are you considering a move back to Australia anytime soon?
At the moment I have one year remaining on my contract with Jeonbuk. After that, who knows what will happen. My family and I are enjoying living in Korea and would be open to the possibility of staying longer. Of course Australia is home and I would love to play there again, but whether that is after next year or a bit further down the track remains to be seen.