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Pub Talk: A Shanghai Shenhua Love-in

This week, Bcheng is absent from the pub during China’s national week holiday, sensibly choosing to travel abroad. Shanghai Ultra takes full advantage of there being no Beijing presence this week to pull in a passer-by on the football Street, Steve Crooks, a fellow Shenhua fan and regular reader. The duo’s agenda is unsurprisingly dominated by Shenhua – what has gone wrong this season and what, if anything, has gone right. A few players are singled out for praise, Zhu Jun is compared to ego-centric English lower-league team owners with criminal records, and bizarre Chinese Super League scheduling once again rears its ugly head. Meanwhile, there’s still some time to discuss non-Shenhua matters, such as perceptions of the quality of the game in China, and the national side’s upcoming WC qualifier against Iraq.

Shanghai Ultra (Shanghai Shenhua): So this week in the pub, with B-dog being somewhere in Japan, we have a special guest. I’m delighted to welcome a fellow Shenhua fan, Mr Steve Crooks. Welcome Steve.

Steve Crooks (Shanghai Shenhua): Pleasure to be here — long-time listener, first-time caller & all that.

S: So Steve, how about you give our readers a brief intro of yourself and your footballing allegencies.

S: Well, I’ve been in China enough years now to’ve lost count, but only this season moved to a city with a football side — hence the convert to Shenhua. I come from a humble background of watching Darlington & England, so bright starts and crushed expectations this year have been comfortingly familiar in a way.

S: I know exactly what you mean – its a kind of reassuring feeling watching a promising team fail over and over again. So is this your first season watching Shenhua regularly?

S: It is indeed — while I managed to keep playing regularly while living in small-town Jiangsu, it was easier to watch EPL games on local TV than Chinese Super League — so this season has been quite the eye-opener in a couple of ways.

S: Yeah. I think our readers would be very interested to hear your perspective. I’ve been watching the Chinese Super League for about six seasons now, so a lot of things which would seem totally bizarre and ridiculous to fans in the UK have become worryingly normal for me. So what has opened your eyes this season?

S: Well, I’ll start with the positives. To the cynical or uninformed outsider, the standard of both the footbal & the matchday experience are far higher than you would think. Particularly having spent 5-6 years in cities where it was physically impossible to watch a live football game, I find it really disappointing that you meet so many fans of football here who have no interest in even trying out a night at their new local club.

S: That’s something I can definitely agree with.

S: Having said that, of course, the clubs don’t really make it easy to get into!

S: That’s also true. Some of the games are rather oddly-scheduled.

S: Absolutely. Before we even get into date or schedule changes at the last minute, there’s something a little odd about kick-off times; our last two home games are a Sunday evening and, of course, the joys of an afternoon kick-off on a work day for the Beijing game.

S: Yeah the Beijing game is on the last day of the season. We can only guess at why its being played in the afternoon on a workday. Perhaps the powers-that-be are worried there might be some un-harmonious goings-on at the game. So what about the standard of the football. This is something which a lot of foreign football fans criticise Chinese football for. Now you’ve seen almost a full season at Shenhua, what’s your take on that?

S: As I said, I’ve generally been very impressed. Any team or league will have a couple of duds during the season, but we’ve had some really cracking games this year, particularly if you look back to the first half of the season when Shenhua were actually playing decently. The games against, say, Tianjin or Shandong were genuinely classy matches. You hear a lot of foreigners complaining about the standard of goalkeepers here — sadly, it seems Shenhua have collected all of the joke keepers, since we seem to get frustrated by some superhuman performances at the other end. If it were true that the keepers were crap, I can see it putting people off; for all I’ve tried, I simply can’t take womens’ football seriously for this very reason. If anything, it’s the finishing that can be more comical in the mens’ game in China. That and the play-acting, which is one South American import we could really do without!

S: Yeah you know Besek was in the Chinese footy media this complaining abou the play-acting. It’s something which affects football everywhere to a greater or lesser extent. And in China, its at the extreme end of the scale.

S: Yeah, coming from a British football background, it does grate a lot. Particularly given that you’re losing about 10 minutes of each game to the rolling-around — I get the impression you could have a floodlight failure, mass brawl and injuries treated on the pitch in a Chinese Super League game and still have 1-2 mins of injury time in the first half and 3-4 in the second. It’s as if the 4th official doesn’t have any other numbers on his electronic display board…

S: Yeah again this is something which happens in footballl generally, the amount of time added on never compensates properly for the time wasted. And that’s why players waste time in the first place, they know it works. So have any Shenhua players caught your eye this season?

S: In a good way or bad? Salmeron is obviously a bit of a fan favourite, not just for the goals he scores but for being the only player in the team to run and chase for the full 90 minutes. Dai Lin is a seriously classy defender who’d benefit from having an older head alongside him and someone who could catch behind him. And I share your appreciation of little Cao Yunding, the Shanghainese Maradona

S: How about the much talked about Feng Renliang?

S: Well, coming into this season everyone was bigging up Feng and Riascos and their impact the year before. I think myabe they both started reading their own press through the summer — while Riascos at least scored a couple, Feng’s been a bitter disappointment. I think I’ve called him a Chinese version of England’s Adam Johnson before — a lovely player until every full-back in the league works out how one-footed they are, and then very easy to defend against. Maybe that’s being harsh on a guy who is clearly very pacy and talented — “second season syndrome” perhaps. How he comes back from this next year could define whether he’s a washed-up wunderkind or someone who can really make a name for himself

S: I agree about Feng. Being one-footed isn’t a massive handicap, maybe its all the rage in modern football to say players should be able to use two feet, but, I think the more important thing he needs to do is broaden his game, improve his crossing, and try and bulk up a bit, he’s a bit lightweight.

S: Yeah, I agree that he needs to add some kind of an end product: having a left foot, having a couple more tricks, having a better delivery or being stronger are all ways to do this. It’ll be interesting to see what happens there

S: So we’ve highlighted some players who have stood out in what has possibly been Shenhua’s worst ever season. Despite these talents, the team find themselves at the wrong end of the table. Why do you think they’ve fared so badly this year?

S: Short answer would probably have to be Zhu Jun, given that he’s the man responsible for the squad and coaching appointments! Longer answer…

S: … there are lots of smaller things you can highlight (only having one fit centre-half and centre-forward, having a gaffe-prone keeper with a comedy understudy, regularly playing eleven players of whom not one is left-footed or over 6 feet tall and wondering why they look unbalanced), but really it all comes down to a lack of leadership: if there were an on-pitch leader for people to look to when things didn’t work out, maybe the bad run would never have really got going. As things stand, there’s nobody to organize the defence and cut out the kamikaze moments, to communicate at set-pieces, or to offer encouragement — too often one player gets the ball and ten others just stand around and watch. Going back to the Feng Renliang thing, perhaps he wouldn’t be so exposed in a team which communicated better and worked for one another

S: Interesting points. I read that Shenhua are going to get money from the government next year, and are going for a big-name foreign coach. So Besek seems to be a temporary stop-gap, hopefully a new man can come in and iron out all these problems.

S: We can only hope — it’s embarassing for a city like Shanghai to have such an under-funded side. You do have to hope the new man has some scope to bring in a few players, though — there’s potential in the Shenhua ranks, but the side needs a backbone. Who do you think would constitute a “big name” for Shenhua?

S: That’s a good question. I would imagine a big name would be someone we would at least have heard of before. For my money, I’d take Blazevic back in a second. He did a great job last year, before he left to take over the Chinese olympic side

S: Yeah, seems to have a fair bit of credit and goodwill left at the club. Ideally to nurture a younger (local?) coach and build a squad — or are we in la-la-land thinking about longer-term planning?

S: I think in order to find the Chinese Super League, one has to spend several days wandering around in La-la Land to find it…

S: Haha, that’s very true. The surrealist side kinda adds to the charm of it sometimes

S: Would you describe yourself as an enthusiastic fan of Shenhua? I know some foreign friends said they thought following another team other than their side back home felt like some kind of betrayal.

S: That’s a very good question. My relationship with Darlo could bore your entire virtual pub to tears if you really want — but they’re still my home team, of course.

I’ve lived around the UK and Germany and never “supported” other teams, even if you have ones you might prefer. There’s no conceivable way that Darlington and Shenhua would ever be competing with one another, which might be a factor. But basically, yeah — I have a season ticket and the shirt, have made new mates through following the team, go along and chant — short of an away game, I hope I tick a lot of the “real fan” boxes!

S: I think we can tick the away game box next season!

S: And my home team betrayed me waaaaay before I cheated on them anyway! Just had to get that in there

S: Haha. Touche!

S: Yeah, definitely. Sounds like a great experience, and hopefully we’ll even have a half-decent side to follow on the road next year… You know, if Shenhua really did move to a stadium in the middle of nowhere (Anhui?) and the owner decided to name it after himself, there’d be even more parallels with Darlo.

S: That would be freaky. And yet another paralell – I’m convinced Zhu Jun is the Chinese George Reynolds .

S: I can see the similarities. Wait until Zhu goes bankrupt, comes out of jail to open an “adult furniture” business and goes back into jail for having a car boot full of mysterious banknotes — the Chinese Super League doesn’t have exclusive rights to strange goings-on!

S: You’re not wrong. So, the pub is looking pretty deserted – I think we’ve scared off just about everyone who isn’t a Shenhua fan. And lets face it, there can’t be many English-speaking Shenhua fans still in here.

S: Well, it’s certainly not for everyone. Always good to have the opportunity to share hopes and frustrations on the boys from Hongkou, though

S: Definately. Well, I suppose we should cast our glance towards the Chinese national team. They beat UAE last night 2-1 in Shenzhen.

S: Panic stations over for the time being, then?

S: Aparently they put in a great game. Feng Renliang got an assist aparently. They are taking on Iraq on Tuesday for a WC qualifier. Although I know neither of us are national team experts, since Bcheng isn’t here, we should make a stab at saying something insightful about the upcoming match, any thoughts?

S: Well, you have to hope the confidence and momentum can build there — as you guys have pointed out before, it’s not so much a lack of ability as a lack of confidence or coherence in the national side. Anyone with even a passing interest in Chinese football has to fervently hope for the team to make it to another world cup as soon as possible to help the beautiful game really take hold as something other than a minority sport here

S: I think that last sentence really hits the nail on the head. Much as we love the game here, it could be so much more if China could just get their shit together football-wise. It can’t be that hard.

S: Yeah. You used to see a lot more interest in football when I first came over here — the national side had just qualified for the world cup, there were Chinese players in the Premiership — there’s such an untapped football country here. You’d almost have to try really hard to screw that up — insert your own comment on the CFA here?

S: Yes. There are many such comments one could make about the CFA. I also read that the number of registered footballers in China is insanely small compared to the population, and that it has fallen dramatically in the last ten years. It’s a real tragedy. But all that would change if China got to the WC and made a decent fist of it. It’s not beyong their ability to do so.

S: Yeah, completely agree. Although it’d be even easier if Australia hadn’t magically migrated half-way across the globe to conveniently fall under “Asia” a few years back. We enjoyed watching them completely stuff up their first Asian championships in the expectation of rolling up and turning everyone over…

S: I enjoyed that also. I think Japan is a better side than Australia. Do you think China can make it this time though?

S: I don’t think it’s beyond them — it’s important that they build momentum and consistency through the next few fixtures though, to be in decent nick for the final qualification stage

S: I think they can surely get to the final qualification stage. Afterall, North Korea is not a better team than China and they made it last time. Plus, the big guns in west Asia, like Iran and Saudi, seem to be going through lean times these days, the momentum has swung to the east, I firmly believe China can qualify if they “keep the heid” as we say in Scotland.

S: Yeah, we can certainly hope so! I’m afraid the real pub is calling now, but that’s certainly a sentiment I’m happy to drink to

S: Indeed. It’s time to down these virtual pints. Thanks very much Steve for guesting in the pub this week, its been something of a Shenhua love-in.

S: Haha, we don’t get enough of those on now that you’ve broadened your scope! It’s been good fun though, and hopefully I’ll have some more positive things to add about Shenhua after the next couple of games…

S: That’s something we can certainly both raise our glasses to. Cheers!

S: Cheers indeed

A leading international commentator on Chinese football frequently quoted by the world's top media. Offers piercing and resolutely honest insights into the bustling crossroads where football, society, economics and politics meet in contemporary China. Based in Shanghai since 2005, observer of the Chinese game since 2000.



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