‘Friday night lights!’ Yelled the ever excitable John Redmond, as the prospect of a floodlit pre-season glamour tie almost got the better of him. However, young (?) JR’s enthusiasm was soon to be dampened by the reality of the 249 traffic lights that stood between his safe Thao Dien haven and the Korean enclave on yonder side of district 7, also known as the sticks, the pits, the back-arse of nowhere. A cunning ploy from the Koreans, dragging the Saints through rush hour traffic on a Friday evening, but in dribs and drabs the Saints arrived at Thanh Long Stadium (Not to be confused with Thang Lon stadium).
Crowd favourite and local lunatic, Colin Owens, continued his rehabilitation with a start at centre-half, alongside Tim Dempsey of ‘have you seen Tim’s Facebook photos?’ fame, with Sean Campbell and Sir Ben Peado on either side of them. Indeed in hindsight it would have been wise to take a photo as the back four lined out, as little did we know it would be the last time they would be seen together. A frantic start, saw the Saints rearguard one by one step into the opposition half to initially support the midfield, before attempting to replace it and finally watching them disappear in the rearview mirror, like a Vinusun taxi whose mirror they had just taken off.
The Korean opposition were a significant upgrade on the Korean Businessmen of years gone by, but in the opening quarter they were often second to the ball, as Q, Teague and Jack Mc successfully battled both the Korean midfield and their own defence. In the absence of a credible striker JR led the line and maintained his fantastic record of only scoring against the Saints. While Conor O’Reilly and Richie Blain tried their best to stave off being pushed into defence for the season, hugging the touchlines and creating chances for JR to miss. Despite the Saints’ endeavors, the first quarter ended all square.
Unsatisfied with the team’s output, the skipper had but one option; more Irish! Fran McShea and Kevin O’Sullivan entered the fray for their club debuts, becoming the 132nd and 133rd Irish players in the past calendar year. For all McShea’s impressive work, it was O’Sullivan who would go on to steal the show, not on the pitch of course, but in an expletive filled incoherent whatsapp ramble at 10.30am Sunday, two days later. After extensive efforts with a team of translators, we can conclude he wanted to play in midfield. A promising debut nonetheless, with many drawing comparisons to a young Iaian Campbell.
Out of nowhere, six consecutive mistakes, slips and slides by the Saints presented a chance to the Korean front man, who duly dispatched the ball almost straight at Boyle in goals, who duly dispatched it into the corner. We all make mistakes, okay?! Half-time: Korea Utd 1 Saigon Saints 0
With Graham Beckett and Haider Al-Asady providing some stability at the back, the second half saw the Saints grow in stature as the game progressed. Beckett drew gasps from the crowd of two people, when he reeled back the years with a pirouette, mid-air control and finally a shot into the corner flag, still drew gasps though! While Haider recovered from giving the ball away with his first touch to put in a good shift at right back. Eden Kane also made his return, showing little in the way of jetlag.
With the away team getting on top and playing a lot of dangerous balls to their imaginary target men, it was Dancin’ Jimmy Teague who would provide the vital incision. A swivel of the hips, only two dragbacks and a beautiful ball to the back post saw Richie Blain notch his first Saints goal (but it was too far up the pitch for me to provide any more details). It was not too long until they had the lead as expecting dad Tim Dempsey, possibly still playing centre half, volleyed in an impressive winner.
A solid win against decent opposition, but lots of work to do in the next month to get ready for the season, with more and more players returning and new faces appearing, competition is at an all-time high, with selection headaches looming for Evans, Houllier and Jimmy Q.