Shanghai Shenhua have been CSL news central this year, from the high publicity signings of Drogba, Anelka and Giovanni Moreno, to the managerial merry-go-round with Jean Tigana, Anelka and Sergio Batista, and the odd world of the Shenhua chairman himself – Hongkou stadium and its inhabitants have been a media dream in 2012.
But newswise Shenhua’s investment in coaching staff has received little attention – 2012 has seen two Frenchman, Alioune Toure and Jean-Florent Ibenge, ex-Birmingham City fitness coach Dan Harris and later in the year the Argentinean influences of Alberto Rodriguez and Alejandro Tocalli all join the Shanghai club’s backroom staff. One though sticks out from the rest, the appointment of former England international Ian Walker as goalkeeper coach.
once again exclusively focuses on the insides of Chinese football by bringing you an interview of international class with former Tottenham Hotspur, Leicester City, Bolton Wanderers and England stopper, Ian Walker and his insights on Drogba, Anelka, Shenhua, managing Bishop’s Stortford and avoiding flying chair covers!
Ian, it’s a pleasure to be able to interview you, how are you finding life in Shanghai in comparison to the UK?
Shanghai itself is good, it has everything you need, there’s a lot to explore and plenty of things to see and do but it’s certainly different! The heat, humidity, smells and noises take some getting used to but I think I adapt easily to different conditions and enjoy being in different places so all in all I’m enjoying it, I don’t miss the cold weather in the UK that’s for sure.
Your football career thus far didn’t involve moving abroad until now so what made you join Shanghai Shenhua?
I wasn’t working at the time it came up so I was free to take up the position of goalkeeper coach. I love to travel, see new places and different cultures plus there were big signings being made and I wanted to be part of a league that is looking to improve and get bigger and better on the world stage. I was also excited to see how much I could improve the goalkeepers at this level and of course I know Nico (Walker and Anelka were teammates at Bolton Wanderers) so I already had someone here I could talk to in and outside of work.
How are you finding the fans here in China?
I think the Chinese fans are great and are very enthusiastic, passionate and vocal. They really get into it but they also let you know when they are not happy, I’ve had to dodge a few seat covers that have been hurled from fans of the home team when we have played away!
What can you tell us about the buzz around Anelka and Drogba arriving at Shenhua and what effect has it had on their team-mates?
I think when any big time players come to any football club it produces a great buzz and excitement from everyone, the Chinese players were very happy to see them come to the club and train alongside these guys who they have seen playing at the highest level. I think it gives the other players more confidence when they see who is in their team, it certainly rubs off on the other players, they want to raise their game and play alongside Nico and Didier every week, they also see them in training, how they go about things, staying out for extra training after everyone has finished, being professional in what they do, their determination to be successful and be winners.
There are quite a few obvious comparisons to be made between the development of the CSL and MLS in America, particularly the age old method of bringing in big names toward the end of their careers to improve the grassroots game. This has also spread with Alessandro Del Piero’s move to Australia and Robbie Fowler’s stint down under and in Thailand, do you think this helps or hinders the game in countries where football is under developed?
It’s a mixed bag in my opinion, I see some benefits but buying big name players is not the ultimate solution. The purchasing of big name players can help bring excitement, putting the spotlight on the club, league and country itself. Ultimately getting it right at grass roots level with excellent coaching methods and therefore bringing through your own stars is the way to go even if it takes some time to get there.
You mention the grass roots situation, what are your opinions on China’s development?
From what I’ve heard it isn’t very good, it’s amazing that a country with the population that China has is not a super power in the football world, if the grassroots situation can get better and more kids across the country have access to good coaching and methodology then I believe China will one day be that super power. Steps have been taken in the right direction with Tom Byer being appointed technical advisor for the schools program and grassroots ambassador but there is a long way to go and it may well take 20-30 years before it comes to fruition.
Your goalkeeping career speaks for itself with top level premiership experience with Spurs and the honor of being capped by England. Asia has not produced a great many famous goalkeepers, do you think you can change that in the next 10 years?
If I am still here in ten years then I hope to have a positive impact, but you never know if you’re going to be here from one season to the next or even one month to the next. I would love to open up some goalkeeping academies across China and become part of the process in raising the level of the goalkeepers but nothing is easy here to set up so we will see.
You had a short stint as a manager before in the lower leagues back in England, are we likely to see a return to management for you?
Highly unlikely, I kind of fell into that gig and went in blind! If I would have known about certain things then I never would have even considered it. I do like the management side but I feel my niche is with goalkeepers and it’s where I feel most comfortable and is what I do best. When a goalkeeper listens, is willing to learn, works hard, improves and get the rewards it is very satisfying!
Amongst all the Shanghai Shenhua news, the appointment of Ian Walker as a goalkeeping coach got a little lost in the mix. With the very common focus on imports in the attacking ranks of Chinese sides this seemed all the more interesting, a long-term investment on the rear guard that encourages youth development directly with experience at the highest level. Shenhua have been literally overflowing with news nearly by the day and whilst the signings of Drogba and Anelka are huge coups, the appointment of Walker is a shrewd move not only for Shenhua but also a step in the right direction for Chinese football.
Ground: Hongkou Football Stadium, Hongkou District, Shanghai
Capacity: 35,000 (26,000 for football)
Honours: Chinese top-tier league champions: 1995
Chinese top-tier league runners-up: 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2006, 2008
Chinese FA Cup winners: 1998
Chinese FA Cup runners up: 1995, 1997, 2015