x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Bolton Wanderers' Lee Chung-yong is on the cusp of big time

A testament to the player-spotting ability of the club's former manager Gary Megson and purchased for £2.2 million two years ago, his current boss rates him as a £10m player.

Lee Chung-yong has impressed in Bolton Wanderers' colours since his move from FC Seoul for £2.2 million (Dh12.9m) in 2009. Nigel Roddis / Reuters
Lee Chung-yong has impressed in Bolton Wanderers' colours since his move from FC Seoul for £2.2 million (Dh12.9m) in 2009. Nigel Roddis / Reuters

Unwanted and unappreciated, Gary Megson ranks among the more unhappy managerial appointments in Premier League history. He was not among the most unsuccessful, however, departing Bolton Wanderers after twice averting relegation but receiving precious little thanks for it.

More than a year after his sacking, however, revisionist thinking has begun. "That Gary Megson," one season ticket-holder said to this observer. "What a judge of a player."

Such sentiments were rarely voiced while Megson was at the Reebok Stadium, not least because Johan Elmander, his costliest buy, was then regarded as a misfit. With the £8.2 million (Dh48m) Swede now rebranded as a willing worker and attacking threat, opinions have shifted.

That the majority of the team Owen Coyle has taken to the top half of the Premier League and the FA Cup semi-finals were signed by Megson is a sign of his transfer-market acumen.

If Exhibit A is Gary Cahill, the England international defender whose value has quadrupled since Megson signed him in 2008, Exhibit B is Lee Chung-yong. "A £10 million player," is how Coyle has described the South Korean. His purchase price, however, was £2.2m when Bolton recruited the winger from FC Seoul in July 2009.

It was Lee who, with his injury-time header at Birmingham City three weeks ago, sent Bolton into a first FA Cup semi-final for 11 years.

His impact was apparent before then, the 22-year-old securing a hat-trick of player of the year awards in his first season as a Wanderer; that he was both the fans' choice and his fellow footballers' pick shows the widespread recognition of his excellence.

By moving straight from his native South Korea, he is a rarity, as his former national team captain recognised. "He has talent and ability," said Park Ji-sung, who joined Manchester United from PSV Eindhoven. "And he didn't go to Holland or Scotland, he came straight to a big league and has played very well."

Such sentiments are shared by his colleagues.

"He's been absolutely fantastic since he came here," Kevin Davies said. The Bolton captain set up Lee's winner at St Andrew's. If the manner of it surprised others, the Wanderers players were aware of his natural spring.

"He's very good in the air and he's got great timing," Davies said. "It was a difficult header and a great finish."

Pace and persistence are among his more obvious attributes along with a work ethic that enables Bolton's four-man midfield, where Lee is normally used on the right, to compete with opponents who often employ an extra player in that department.

A willingness to run at, and commit, defenders has been allied by accurate crossing. With five assists this season, and another five last year, he is consistently creative. What he has not been, of late, is a regular starter.

February's 1-0 win over Wolves is his only league start in 2011. It is the product of two years without a break - including one Korean season, almost two in England plus a World Cup and the Asian Cup - rather than underperformance.

"I can't keep asking him to start games and burn him out because we will lose all his quality by the end of the season," Coyle said. "We have to be very careful. He has such a big part to play."

In a new role as the resident impact substitute, Lee has made his mark, creating Daniel Sturridge's goal against Everton and coming off the bench to head Bolton to Wembley. While it allows Coyle to pace him through the season, it may serve as useful preparation for life at the level of clubs where squad rotation is employed.

"Lee is an outstanding young player," Coyle said after the Birmingham game. "As he progresses, he could go on and play for any team in the country; he's that good. He has everything in his locker.

"He has got a footballing intelligence that you can't give players. He has an unbelievable touch, he can take the ball in tight areas. He is great to have at the club."

Coyle deals in positivity and, to some extent, compliments are to be expected. Yet his conviction that Lee is destined for grander stages is shared by others. He was watched by Liverpool last year, at the end of Rafa Benitez's reign, though he signed an improved contract at Bolton as recently as November.

But while an FA Cup quarter-final winner assumes a large role in Bolton's recent history, World Cup goals against both Argentina and Uruguay, the latter in a knockout tie, meant Lee had already displayed an appetite for the major occasions.

It should suit him at Wembley and, potentially, at a bigger club. And should Bolton bank a sizeable cheque for him, they will have a belated reason to thank Megson.

 

sports@thenational.ae