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From Edinburgh to Xi’an: The Mysterious Case Of Derek Riordan

Now see him, now you don't: Riordan when joining Shaanxi

New contributor Andrew Crawford delves deeper into Derek Riordan’s Chinese Super League career and previous history following his odd disappearing act, reminiscing over Riordan’s one and only appearance at Shanghai’s Hongkou football stadium back in September.

It was sometime around April 2010 when I last saw Derek Riordan, then a Hibernian striker, scoring the only goal for Hibernian against St. Mirren in an otherwise drab Scottish Premier League game. Riordan had recently returned to Hibs after two years stagnating in the Celtic reserves but still looked a grade or two above the players around him, a fact demonstrated by his tidy finish on a boggy Easter Road pitch. With his former strike partner Steven Fletcher playing Premier League football with then newly promoted Burley, most fans at the stadium casually assumed that ‘Deke’ would be making the same move south of the border come the summer.

Except he didn’t.

Instead, Riordan, whether through laziness or love for his boyhood club, stayed with Hibernian for a further two years, even becoming the captain in 2010 and making a serious claim for a return to the national side. There were obviously low points, most notably when he tried to break the leg of personal nemesis, Hearts’ Rudi Skacel in the Edinburgh derby, having previously been recorded on camera singing that the Czech was ‘a fucking refugee’ to the tune of ‘Yellow Submarine’ by the Beatles. Riordan, as the cliché goes, was a bit of a maverick in the Robin Friday mould; bags of skill but liable to go on a massive bender at a moments notice, something underlined by the fact that he is still currently banned from every nightclub in Edinburgh since 2008.

Fast forward to September 2011 and former league champions Shanghai Shenhua, found themselves in a relegation dog-fight with fellow team-that-used-to-be-good, Shaanaxi Chanba. The line-up for Chanba featured the mandatory smattering of South American journeyman but also, to my genuine surprise, also listed Derek bloody Riodan, recently arrived following the expiration of his contract in Scotland.

The bewilderment at seeing the third most prolific goal scorer in the history of the Scottish league playing for an obscure but seemingly wealthy Chinese side aside, it was quickly obviously that this wasn’t going to be just any kind of football game.

Indeed, once inside the Hongkou Stadium, the atmosphere was noticeably zesty. Shenhua were in freefall; they’d lost eight of the last nine and drawn the other. The club’s owner, Zhu Jun, who’d once forced a previous manager to name him in the squad for a friendly against Liverpool, had recently sold some of the club’s best players to balance the books and the club was now sinking towards relegation. Five minutes before kick-off, a large banner was unfurled from the top tier of the north stand, responding to rumours that Zhu was going to move the team. Whatever was written on the banner brought a loud, rumbling roar from all around the stadium and the cries of ‘SHENHUA! SHENHUA!’ mercifully drowned out the Black Eyed Pies song being played over the public announcer.

After a diligently sung national anthem and an extended period of roaring between the two sets of ultras, the game eventually began. Shenhua, playing 4-5-1, made the most of their numerical advantage in midfield with winger Cao Yunding and Wu Xi causing increasing problems down Chanba’s right flank. From my seat behind the goal with the Blue Devils, it was close enough to see Riordan’s obvious frustrations with his new teammates as he frequently dropped back into midfield to try and link the play lest another move broke down in the middle of the pitch.

Fifteen or so minutes in and Shenhua were playing with a swagger and were soon ahead. Luis Salmeron, who had played most of his football in the lower leagues of Argentina, seized on the hesitations of a shaky Chenba defence and headed home a seemingly aimless cross past Zhange Lie. Cue complete chaos and the obligatory Poznan from both sets of Shenhua ultras.

Amidst the novelty of Shenhua being in control of the game and also a goal up, Riordan was looking increasing forlorn in the middle of the Hongkou pitch. A pimply faced teenager two rows down from me started to call the Scotsman’s mother a whore in broken English, and the days of being linked with moves to the Premiership must have seemed a long time ago.

The Scotsman’s only real chance came thirty-minutes into the match, when he seized upon a rebounded shot on the edge of the area, only to watch his effort saved smartly by Wang Dalei. Dalei, who’d come up through the youth team, made his debut at seventeen and once had a trial with Inter Milan, immediately turned to the Blue Devil section behind him and wagged his finger a la Dikembe Mutombo to scold Riordan for lacking a more clinical finish. The bloc erupted duly erupted.

With half time approaching, Shanghai would double their advantage through a glorious own goal when the magnificently named Dino Dulbic powerfully miscued his defensive header and drilled it past a helpless Zhange. The Bosnian’s gift to Shenhua was celebrated by the crowd and players alike and with Chenba looking bewildered at one another, the referee charitably blew for halftime shortly afterwards. Riordan, exhausted and weary, trudged off the pitch as Dalei, still milking the applause from his earlier save, turned to the crowd for one final salute.

The second half ultimately lacked the drama of the first, despite Qu Bo scoring a scrambled consolatory goal for Chanba late in the game. For all intents and purposes, Shenhua were being pulled towards the final whistle by the unrelenting noise in the stadium and both sides seemed content to give the boisterous crowd the victory they wanted. Riordan was withdrawn after sixty minutes having done little other than scowl furiously and make off-the-ball runs that never got noticed. All everyone cared about was the second half ending, and when the full time whistle duly arrived, the explosion of sound returned to the fore and a belatedly victorious Shenhua team could finally come out to applaud the faithful, led of course by Dalei and his badge-pointing theatrics.

As I snuck into the night, my ears still ringing from the sound of mandarin chants about the typical penis size of the Chenba supporters (or lack thereof) and several thousand renditions of SHENHUA! SHENHUA! I noticed a bus creep out of the stadium. It could just have been supporters, although it might have equally been the Chenba players looking to get to the airport as quickly as they could. I wondered what Deke would be thinking about his time in Chinese football, having spent his evening running glumly up and down the Hongkou pitch, far away from Edinburgh and playing St. Mirren on wet Saturday afternoons. I wondered then, as I occasionally wonder now, if I’d see him again next season playing in China, something I suspect is rather unlikely now. That, or Rudi Skacel signing for Dalian Shide.

A passionate fan of the beautiful game, Andrew Crawford has lived a somewhat nomadic existance for the last few years that has involved stays in various corners of Africa, Asia and Europe. His most treasured footballing experiences are watching Hibernian beat Celtic 3-2 in front of a packed Easter Road during his university days and his time as the content writer for Nairobi City Stars, a Nairobi-based team based in the Kawangare slums who play in the Kenyan Premier League.

A football polygamist, he always keeps an eye on the fortunes of the various teams who’ve stole his heart during his childhood and then subsequent manhood; Cambridge United, Ryman League’s finest, Bury Town, Hibernian and Nairobi City Stars. Though recently arrived in Shanghai, he has already become addicted to the atmosphere at the Honkou and looks forward to watching his new team at every chance he gets.

He is also runs and writes for sharkfinhoops.com, the only English-speaking website about the fortunes of the Shanghai Sharks basketball team. You should check that out as well.

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