Chengdu Blades were met with huge fan fare when visiting Sheffield in 2007, they became the first foreign-owned Chinese side with the Chengdu Sports Centre becoming home to the familiar red and white stripes and crossed swords logo. Sheffield United boast links to Hungarian side Ferencváros, Estudiantes in Argentina, São Paulo in Brazil, Norway, Belgium, India and Central Coast Mariners in Australia but none so large as the full ownership of the Sichuan side.
In late October 2007, the Chengdu Blades visited the University of Sheffield, were paraded around the city and in conjunction the club shop stocked endless amounts of the Chinese team’s shirt which proved surprisingly popular.
Legends in Chinese football, Sun Jihai and Li Tie were transferred to play for the Sichuan side who were also furnished with an arsenal of experience; Don O’Riordan was their Technical Director, a man whose playing career spans four decades and has coached in China, England, Ireland, South Africa and America including a role coaching the Chinese Women’s Olympic team at the 2008 games.
O’Riordan’s original employment in China stemmed from his links to Sheffield United when he was asked to move to Tianjin in 2004 to operate the Sheffield United Chinese Academy.
But the initial idea of a partnership with a Chinese club was to try to produce players to take to the UK and coach them in the Sheffield academy with the long-term goal of Chinese players making it to the United first team.
O’Riordan explained the background to Wild East Football, “Sheffield United chairman Kevin McCabe is a man with great business vision and he had a plan to have connections between his different clubs around the world, Chengdu Blades were a big part of this plan and so was the enhancement of the Sheffield United brand.”
United’s ties abroad are impressive, talented midfielder Nick Montgomery moved to Central Coast Mariners just a few days ago despite several suitors in the UK.
disaster struck though when in 2009, Chengdu, along with Guangzhou Pharmaceutical (later to become Evergrande), were relegated from the CSL to the China League for match-fixing in the lower division a few seasons earlier.
The corruption issue unsurprisingly was a deal-breaker for the Sheffield club as O’Riordan explained, “I think the chairman was prepared for that scenario (of not making too much profit) but once the corruption was connected with the club I believe that Sheffield United decided their investment days were numbered in China.”
Indeed, Chengdu Blades were a team born from match fixing, reformed in 2002 after a scandal they transformed to the Blades in 2006 and were promoted two seasons later only to be yet again relegated for match mixing in 2010. They achieved immediate promotion but were again relegated last year, a turbulent ride for a team that seemingly can’t stay out of trouble.
A visit to Sheffield United’s website now reveals a u-turn on the partnership, several Chengdu Blades links now divert you to the main page and the visit documented on the University of Sheffield’s website has also mysteriously disappeared. The current status of the relationship is unclear, it could perhaps be termed as a divorce in progress, the Blades name is still with the Chengdu club but not a great deal else.
Chengdu Blades currently sit tenth in China League One with seven games to go and are only seven points clear of relegation to China’s third tier which although very unlikely is a crazy concept just four years on from a takeover. In their last 20 games in China League One, only five wins have come from those games with a disappointing nine loses with the Sichuan side scoring 22 goals in this time and conceding 29.
The Sheffield United era was not without success though, over 15 of the academy trainees went on to play first team football either during O’Riordan’s time there or since, a huge return for any academy especially in China where experience is always seen to be superior to youth. Additionally, the under-17 side finished second in a national tournament which was a first for the club.
Youngsters Li Jianbin and Peng Xinli were sent to Sheffield United (Hong Kong) and Metz respectively to aid their development whilst with Chengdu Blades and now play under Marcello Lippi at Guangzhou Evergrande.
Don O’Riordan suggests a change in attitude is needed if the Chinese game is to improve, “If the Chinese coaches were to work closely with the foreign coaches who are here, listen and learn everything the foreigners know about the game and use this knowledge and experience to improve themselves as coaches, then they would be heading in the right direction and Chinese football would have a chance to improve domestically and on the international stage.”
What does Don O’Riordan think the solution is? “The best formula would be to combine a good foreign coach in charge with a young ambitious Chinese coach and I believe the football side could be a success.”
The name Chengdu Blades still exists and the side continues to play in the red and white, but all signs of what was once a promising link-up will soon be erased for this side with had such great ties to the city of steel.