2016 hero Niall McGinn will forever be one of the Kings of Lyon. For good measure the 30-year-old has been receiving the royal treatment in the Far East since his move to South Korean outfit Gwangju.
McGinn stunned football followers in Northern Ireland and Scotland when he opted to leave Aberdeen last month for the bottom of the table K-League Classic side.
The Dons were keen to keep him and there was interest from some English clubs, but McGinn, with his outgoing personality and sense of adventure, decided on a fresh challenge.
Speaking to the Sunday Life, the former Dungannon Swifts and Derry City hero admitted it can be lonely at times in Korea but says he is relishing the experience and enjoying a period of discovery in his life.
It helps when his club Gwangju are doing everything they can to make life comfortable for the winger, such as cooking him his own British style food and providing an interpreter.
McGinn, in Michael O’Neill’s squad for the upcoming crucial World Cup qualifiers versus San Marino and the Czech Republic, is learning to adapt to a different culture on and off the pitch. A new manager has been recruited by Gwangju and while they remain bottom of the 12- team league, there is now more optimism that they can get out of trouble especially with the ex-Brentford ace on board.
“I’m getting used to the culture. When I first arrived the team used to eat together at the training centre, breakfast, lunch and dinner, but things have changed since the new coach came in and we don’t have to do that all the time,” explained McGinn, who lives in an apartment close to the impressive training facilities.
“I have tried Korean food, but I mostly eat the food I would have eaten at home.
“What’s been really good is they cook my food which is different to what the rest of the players eat.
“They have also brought in an English interpreter which is useful and there is a Brazilian coach who speaks some English. Most of the Korean lads don’t really know English, but they do try with me which is really nice. It can be funny as well."
The language is very difficult to learn, but ultimately I’m here for the football and I want to enjoy that and the lifestyle. Korea is an amazing country, the people are very friendly and it’s an adventure for me. Niall McGinn
“Of course there are times you get a little lonely and miss your family and friends, but I want to enjoy the lifestyle because it is a totally new experience.
“I’ve been really busy with training and occupied with the matches so there have not been many days off but I like relaxing in my apartment, going to Starbucks because it is good to go to places you know and there is a nice walk near where I live. I hope to be driving in Korea soon which will give me a chance to go to the driving range and more coffee shops and restaurants.
“I always try to enjoy life and that’s what I want to do in my time in Korea.”
McGinn has been impressed by the standard and stadiums in the K-League Classic.
He says: “It took me a while to get up to speed because they were in the middle of their season when I arrived and then I had a setback with a little injury problem but I have started the last few weeks and am enjoying playing.
“It’s a difficult situation because we are bottom of the table and the season ends in November which means I’ll be off for Christmas for the first time in my career.
“The league is similar to Scotland in that there is a split after each team plays the other three times. Then you have the top six and the bottom six playing each other.
“Whoever finishes bottom is relegated and the second bottom placed team goes into a play-off.
“The manager left and now another older coach with lots of experience has come in. I’m enjoying his training and there is hope we can get out of trouble.
“Over here the players are fit and strong and there is not much time on the ball. It can be quite frantic early on in games.
“I’ve found the standard to be really good though and I have to say the stadium facilities are first class. We play in stadiums that were built for the 2002 World Cup when it was staged in South Korea and Japan.”
McGinn is eagerly anticipating joining up with his international buddies again. Having famously scored against Ukraine in the Euro 2016 finals, he is determined to help Northern Ireland reach next year’s World Cup finals.
“It’s important that we get the three points against San Marino as that will really set up the Czech Republic match at Windsor,” said McGinn, who has 52 caps to his name.
“I think for games against teams like San Marino results have changed dramatically for us in recent years and that’s because we have become a strong minded team.
“Against San Marino we are going to have a lot of possession and we have take to be patient and take our chances.
“When we play the Czechs we may have less of the ball, but it will be about defending well and again taking our opportunities when they come. These are two big games for us and the aim will be for two positive results.”