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WEF Exclusive: Ex-Chengdu Blades coach Don O’Riordan talks Beckham and grassroots

There are few better placed in China to evaluate the football scene than Don O’Riordan. Following a long career in English football, the 55-year-old from Dublin started coaching in the UK then after returning home he managed two clubs and moved onto Sheffield United where he worked with Neil Warnock.

United’s ties to China with Chengdu Blades saw the Irishman appointed as technical director which included a stint as caretaker manager and also he was later given a role with the Chinese Women’s 2008 Olympic side.

O’Riordan is currently helping by giving advice on how to establish and improve the setups of a couple of football schools in Beijing where he is also doing some coaching with kids between 3 to 18 years of age. Speaking exclusively to Wild East Football, he looks at the future of football in China as well as the potential impact of David Beckham, an issue much discussed in the ranks.

Thanks for joining us Don, what can you tell us about the current situation of youth football in China?

 I have heard that the numbers of kids who play football have dropped over the years and it’s not surprising because most parents I speak to have no intention of wanting their kids to become professional players because of the publicity in the past surrounding the corruption in the game in China which is very disappointing and worrying given the effect that this could have on football.

O'Riordan was appointed Head Coach and Technical Director of F.C. New York in 2010

O’Riordan was appointed Head Coach and Technical Director of F.C. New York in 2010

A big question and I think the root of the problem is that there aren’t many amateur city leagues like we see in England and Ireland. It would be great if there were leagues where teams could play each other over a season starting with kids as early as eight years of age going through eventually to under 18’s. China is such a big country it’s impossible to have national domestic youth leagues where they play home and away every week and that’s part of the problem but there doesn’t seem to be too many people who are eager to start a grassroots league in cities throughout China that would help players develop. Perhaps the emphasis placed on education by parents also has a big effect on why it is not happening with the kids whose leisure time is very restricted anyway because they must study long and hard for good exam results and so can’t dedicate the time required by joining a football team that would demand time for training and play games.

How do you suggest getting improvements going?

I’d love to see a major sponsor in a big city take 200 kids whose parents have little or no money and form a 10 team league where the kids selected would train most days and play a competitive game every week but would all attend the same school together to get a proper education. This is vital to help them to get qualifications but also to to be able to understand football better because from my experience dealing with players this is something that’s lacking and needs to improve. Introduce some new young coaches who love the game, know the game and want to bring the best out of these kids using their knowledge and skills to develop them. Do that for 5 years starting at 13 years of age and I’m positive a different type of player would emerge displaying good skills and with a different stronger mentality.

Will we ever see a Chinese player at the standard of Messi or Ronaldo?

It depends on a few things but I see no reason why not. For me the young kids in China have a lot of natural attributes that every top player needs to succeed in the game; agility, speed and ability being the key traits that most already have. They lack the physique of westerners but that’s easily remedied by exercise to improve body strength. The attributes they lack can easily be taught over a short period of time but the ones they naturally possess are the most difficult to teach.

When I watch games in the CSL I see very little of individual skills except from the foreign players and rarely do you see a Chinese player doing a trick such as a step over, a scissors or a Cryuff turn to beat an opponent or to get out of trouble. Maybe Chinese culture is to blame because it usually means looking at a situation first for the problems and second for the benefits which perhaps influences Chinese coaches to discourage players from practising these skills or certainly from trying them in games. Western players and coaches look for the positive first and would see an opportunity to score or create a goal by trying a trick and don’t think about failure.

Who should China try to emulate to change the game here?

The Japanese have changed their style of play down the years with the women’s transformation being incredible since before the 2008 Olympics. They have looked outside to change their coaching methods to suit their game and with Brazil being one that had an influence because they play the beautiful game really well but in an effective way.

They realized they lacked a physical presence and would lose out to teams who were physically bigger and stronger but not now. They adapted their best skills control , passing and mobility and decided to pass the ball quickly and make the bigger opponents chase the ball and when they were tired they would punish them. If the same can be done in the men’s and women’s game here where they play to their strengths it would be a step in the right direction

Beckham met with fellow EPL alumni Frédéric Kanouté in Beijing

Beckham met with fellow EPL alumni Frédéric Kanouté in Beijing

What are your thoughts on David Beckham’s visit to China?

The Beckham visit has probably given the game a boost in the football areas he visited and might have given some kids the idea of pursuing a football career but normally if they don’t have money they can’t chase that dream. Whoever sponsored the Beckham trip would have been much more creative had they used the money they paid David to fund children whose families have little money and so no chance of fulfilling the dream of playing professional football some day.

What can Beckham actually achieve in China?

Beckham can’t be blamed for coming here it’s not his fault that he is so famous and influential but he knows nothing about the seedy side of the game, he was here working and generally he only saw the nice parts like the Workers Stadium in Beijing where he met ex Premier League opponent Kanuote for a chat tried a few free kicks and met former ex-Everton rival Li Tie in another city where everyone smiled for the cameras.

For me there is a need for someone like Beckham to advise the CFA to encourage professional clubs to give kids whose families have no money the chance to play football because right now these kids have no chance because of what is required to climb the ladder in the game in this country. In Europe and South America most of the top players emerge from humble backgrounds and a common thread amongst these players is they all possess a great desire from an early age to become a professional because they love the game and see it as a chance to improve their family’s circumstances and that same hunger and mentality is needed in China for the game to improve here.

The image of the game in China has been blackened and people have been put away but has anything changed for the better I wonder? I hope it has.

Pete is from Sheffield, England and came to China in 2008 initially living in Shenyang where he witnessed his first CSL game, Liaoning Whowin v Chengdu Blades. Pete is a fanatic Sheffield Wednesday fan but has picked up football allegiances from various trips, Galatasary in Turkey, Piacenza in Italy and Muangthong United in Thailand. In early 2009 he moved to Beijing and after a brief time started attending Guoan games regularly.

Pete graduated in Journalism in the UK and has written for several educational publications on Chinese education for his day job as well as Chinese football for WEF which he wishes was more developed but avidly follows the Imperial Guards on their quest for CSL supremacy regardless.

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