Dawn hadn’t even broken in Seoul last October when Colin Bell’s alarm went off, his slumber cut short for a football match taking place 5,000 miles away in Glasgow.
It had been 3½ years since he’d managed the Republic of Ireland, but out of the 12 players who featured in their World Cup qualifying play-off against Scotland that night, only Lily Agg hadn’t come under his guidance along the way.
He’d made Katie McCabe, then 21, Ireland’s youngest ever captain. He’d nurtured the careers of Amber Barrett and Heather Payne, giving them their debuts. He’d first brought Courtney Brosnan into the senior squad. And the likes of Louise Quinn, Niamh Fahey, Diane Caldwell and Denise O’Sullivan had been the core of his team for his 2½ years in charge.
His “emotional connection” with the team was, he says, still deep. “And the emotion I felt that morning came from knowing what these girls had put in over so many years, all the ups and downs, in football and in life. So, from a long way away, it was overwhelming watching their joy. And I felt nothing but joy too.”
What heightened his emotions further was the steady flow of messages he received in the aftermath of the game, from players, from Ruud Dokter, the former high performance director at the FAI, and from his successor, Vera Pauw, all of them acknowledging his part in this team’s story.
“My philosophy in life is to try to plant good seeds. And that’s how I define my time in Ireland – I planted a seed. It’s been nurtured by Vera, she has taken it on, grown it, brought the team further, and they’re now reaping the harvest. And I couldn’t be happier for everyone involved.”
If he hadn’t already led South Korea’s women to World Cup qualification, that night might have felt bittersweet for the 61-year-old Leicester man. But, like Pauw, he will fulfil a lifetime’s ambition this summer by leading a nation into the World Cup.
The manner of his departure from the Irish job still pains him, though. A recap: he was asked by his old German friend Jan Siewert to become his assistant at Championship club Huddersfield Town in the summer of 2019.
The salary on offer was significantly larger than the one the FAI paid him, but he was prepared to stay in the Irish job if he was given a wider role, along the lines of technical director for women’s football in Ireland. With a “small” salary increase.
But those were the days of – to put it mildly – turmoil in the FAI, so they were in no position to agree to his request. So he left for Huddersfield. And around six weeks later, Siewert was sacked by the club. Bell was left high and dry.
By then, the FAI had still not appointed his successor, so he told Dokter he wanted to come back. But, possibly because Pauw was already lined up, that was a no go.
“I know that I disappointed a lot of players, some felt let down. But I soon realised that I had made a really big error leaving that team. And that’s why I couldn’t watch any of their games for a while, it was just too difficult. An indescribable feeling. I look back on it as a great time, I loved those players, but with a sad ending. If I blame anybody, I blame myself.”
But within four months of leaving the Irish job, Bell was appointed manager of South Korea, a country he has grown to love in his spell there. “Personally, it’s been a magnificent time,” he says.
He took on the job in extraordinary circumstances, though, his predecessor, Choi In-cheul, only lasting a week in the position after a number of his former players alleged that he had been physically abusive towards them.
“So the KFA (Korea Football Association) decided they would go for a foreign coach for the first time in their history, they had to be really careful this time,” says Bell. “They wanted somebody with no past in Korea, no skeletons in the cupboard. They did a very in-depth check on me, and I will be forever grateful to the FAI for sending them a tremendous letter about me.”
There were, of course, obstacles to tackle from the off, not least the language barrier, but after taking up lessons Bell can now do his training sessions in Korean, as well as his team talks.
There were cultural differences to overcome too. “I learned how important age is here, the hierarchy is very strong, younger players would never call out an older player on the pitch. I had to tell them that I respected their culture, but in our football team we had to create our own – and it’s all about helping each other, no matter the age difference.”
Despite those hurdles, Bell’s first managerial experience outside Europe, having spent the bulk of his career coaching at club level in Germany, has been a success.
He led South Korea to their first ever Asian Cup final in 2022 – having beaten Australia, with Sam Kerr on board, in the quarterfinals – and to World Cup qualification, achievements that resulted in the federation extending his contract last month to December 2024.
That extension also saw his role widened within the federation, ironically similar to the one he was seeking with the FAI, Bell now working with and advising the coaches of national teams at all underage levels.
“I’m relishing this role because we need to do more work in the underage area. We’re a small footballing nation compared to those around us – we have just 1,400 registered girls playing football, Japan has over 800,000, Australia over 400,000 and China ... well, China’s China.”
The vast majority of his players are home-based, with just four of the 27-strong squad he named for last month’s friendlies against Zambia (which they won 5-2 and 5-0) playing abroad – Brighton’s Lee Geum-min and Park Ye-eun, Spurs’ Cho So-hyun and goalkeeper Yoon Young-geul, who plays with BK Häcken in Sweden.
Best known of all his players, though, is Ji So-yun, who won 11 trophies in her eight seasons with Chelsea before returning home last year.
The one quality Bell says he wants to develop in his Korean players is the “never-say-die spirit” he found his Irish players had in abundance when he took on the job. “I could push the Irish girls very hard, they have a toughness about them which might partly come from playing Gaelic football and camogie, which so many of them did – and they are tough sports.”
A resilient crew, too. And during Bell’s time, they needed to be off the pitch as much as on it. He was less than two months in the job when the squad made their stand against the FAI, threatening to go on strike unless their treatment improved.
Bell, inevitably, felt caught in the middle, but he’d already witnessed some of the issues that left the players concluding enough was enough.
“My first tour with the girls was to the Cyprus Cup. When we were at the airport on the way home they all went into the toilets in their tracksuits and came out in their own clothes. I’m thinking, ‘what’s going on here?’ I couldn’t believe it, they had to give the tracksuits back. All of that had to change.”
“The girls were very strong, and they needed to be to get the things that they deserved. In a way, the whole thing was a godsend for me because when it was over I was able to say to them, ‘right, it’s more professional now, but as individuals and as a team, you have to be too’. And they were, they responded brilliantly.”
The standout result during his time in charge was a 0-0 draw in a World Cup qualifier away to the Netherlands, the then reigning European champions. That result appeared to flick a switch., players, he says, ditched the “honourable defeat mentality”, by then convinced they could mix it with the best.
In the line-up that night was a 16-year-old Tyler Toland, who Bell had made Ireland’s youngest ever senior international two months before.
He had never shied away from giving youth its fling, bringing Shelbourne’s Jessie Stapleton into the home-based training camp when she was just 13, and capping Jess Ziu and Emily Whelan when they, like Toland, were 16.
“Probably one of the saddest things for me is that Tyler’s not in the squad. When I first brought her in, I remember Katie saying, ‘Colin, who’s this Tyler Toland?’ After our first training session, Katie came up to me and said ‘now I know why she’s in’. She was 16, but played like she was 25.”
“All I can say is, for me, Tyler was just a fantastic kid and a fantastic young player who was passionate about playing for her country. And I believe she can go on to achieve a lot in football – she’s still only 21. Such an intelligent girl, with football intelligence beyond her years. I still keep in touch with Tyler. I didn’t want to get involved in the story [her fallout with Pauw], but Tyler knows that if she needs me, I’m always there for her. And that won’t change.”
He has a notion that his willingness to give young players their chance goes back to his time at Leicester City, who he joined at 14, when he didn’t get as much as a minute in their first team.
That prompted a move to Germany when he was 21, FSV Mainz 05 making him coach of their reserves when he finished his playing career – around the same time they took a chance on another of their former players by appointing him first team coach. A fellah by the name of Jürgen Klopp.
They worked closely together for four seasons before Bell moved on, eventually switching to women’s coaching with Bad Neuenahr. And he’s been in the women’s game ever since, the high point coming when he won the Champions League with Frankfurt in 2015. He remains the only English coach to have won the competition – since it was reformatted from the European Cup – in men’s or women’s football.
That journey has taken him to his first World Cup. South Korea, ranked at 17 in the world (Ireland are at 22), have been drawn in a group with Morocco, Colombia and, inevitably, his adopted home of Germany.
“I thought it might pan out that way,” he laughs, “although if we were drawn with Ireland as well, that would have been too much. I told Amber we’d be 5-0 up at half-time if we met, I won’t repeat her reply. But we’re in a tough, tough group. I’ve worked with a lot of the German players, they’re world class, but my only focus for now is on our opening game against Colombia, a very uncomfortable opponent.”
Ireland’s opening game against Australia? “I honestly trust the girls to do something – the Australians are gonna have to be careful. It’s a special team, I have a feeling they’re going to have a very good World Cup.”
He’s in regular touch with several of the Irish players, among them Ziu, whose World Cup dreams were crushed by injury. He’s especially close to Barrett and Caldwell, having helped arrange the former’s move to the Bundesliga and having signed Caldwell during his time at SC Sand, the centre half crediting him with “rejuvenating” her career after a difficult spell in Norway.
More than anything, he loved the fun he had with these players, his fondness for them evident. Ruesha Littlejohn? “I didn’t know she was Scottish when she first came in to the camp. I said, “you’re not Irish”. And with the strongest Scottish accent, she says, “ah f**king am you know.”
Would he like to return to the Irish job some day?
“I love my job in Korea, I love my life here, but never say never,” he says. “I loved living in Ireland, I loved Dublin and I worked with some special people, it was a good time. You never know what might happen, but if one day the situation arises that I could go back, I would have no difficulties in saying, yeah, I’d go back to Ireland.”