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Ian Walker: Wang Dalei can play in the Premiership one day

One of the success stories of the Chinese Super League season this year so far has been the stunning performances of Shanghai Shenhua keeper Wang Dalei, which have seem him elevated to the national team. Despite having made his debut over six years ago for Shenhua and seemingly having been on the CSL scene for a long time, it’s surprising to note that Wang is still just 24 years old. The Oriental Sports Daily caught up with Shanghai Shenhua goalkeeper coach, former Spurs and England international, Ian Walker, who is widely credited with playing a key role in Wang’s rise over the last two seasons. What follows is a full translation of a recent interview with Walker published by the newspaper.

Wang Dalei in the thick of it

Wang Dalei in the thick of it

Oriental Sports Daily:This season everyone is talking about Wang Dalei’s progress, this surely reflects well on you. There’s a lot of interest in your training methods, can you tell us what kind of magic you have used?

Walker:,Ha ha. I think he should be the one given most credit, he had put in a tremendous amount of effort. I’m not sure I would call my training magic, but I played as a goalkeeper for many years so there is a lot of experience I can pass onto him. For every match, I prepare a set of notes and record his statistics, such his crucial saves, errors, etc. Every fifth game we look back at the stats and compare and contrast. This way we can see in which areas he’s improving and where his weakness are, and then adjust training accordingly.

OSD:When you first met Wang Dalei, what did you think of his ability at that time?

Walker:When I joined Shenhua I saw his potential right away. But not only his abilities, but the other keepers, such as Big Bull (Qiu Shenjiong). I found they had a common weakness, they lacked a little bit professionalism. However Wang Dalei has exceeded my expectations, I think that one day he will have the qualities necessary so that he can play in the English Premiership. But keeping up consistency is extremely important, he needs to keep up the same level of performance week-in-week-out, and play as good as he did against Dalian Aerbin the other week, in every match. You can see his performance last season was already of a very high level and he has kept this consistency up. But this is also a kind of danger, to rely on the displays of the season past, it can led to people to have unrealistic expectations. For example, Joe Hart’s performances were almost faultless for Manchester City the season the won they Premiership. This past season he was just as remarkable as before, but expectations were higher, so people were quicker to criticise and say he wasn’t performing as well as before. But so far, Dalei’s performances continue on an upward trend. Up until now, Guangzhou Evergrande’s keeper (Zeng Cheng) is the best in China right now, he was solid as a rock when Evergrande played us in Shanghai. But Dalei can pull off some saves he can’t, he  just needs more consistency.

OSD: Is there  big difference between him and China’s first choice international keeper right now?

Walker: There isn’t. There is no other keeper in the CSL with more talent and ability than him, and in time no-one will be able to surpass him. But right now, there are other goalkeepers performing at a similar level to him. But what we are talking about here is tiny differences between keepers, especially those elevated to the national team. Small shortcomings like poor concentration levels are heavily punished.

OSD: In which areas can he still improve?

Walker:I hope he can improve his footwork, this will make his job overall much easier. Also when handling crosses, I hope he can catch more than punch. His kicking has improved and I hope he can keep making progress.

OSD:When you played for the English national team you were usually on the bench, and now Dalei is occupying a similar role for China. What kind of experience have you passed onto him as regards being a substitute goalkeeper?

National aspirations

Walker: It’s difficult because when you are playing for the national team you maybe aren’t really making a huge effort during training that you would for your club side. You live in a hotel, and apart from training, there isn’t much else to do besides eat and drink. By the time you get back to your club, you come back in a worse condition. For a young player like Dalei, being picked for the national team squad is a good experience, but you need to play more games and strive to play well in those games to win a place for yourself. I always remind him, don’t think you’ve made it just because you got picked for the national team a few times, he still has a lot of room for improvement.

OSD: People are always saying there is a bit of a disconnect between club and country,just the other week China lost 5-1 to Thailand, this issue cropped up again, and its also something often talked about in England. Do you think there is a middle way between club and country?

Walker: It is difficult, as Dalei is finding out for himself, being away training with the national team overseas. When you get back, there is a lot of stuff to catch up and and re-adjustments to make. To be honest, when he comes back from being away with the national side, his condition has slipped quite a bit, so I have to be tough on him in training. But you have to find a balance between these two sides, as far as players go, “national team” this phrase means quite a lot, if you want to prove yourself, just playing for your club isn’t enough, so when you play for the national side you need to put in a great deal of effort. Take me for example, although you can count the number of times I played for England on one hand, I treasured every time I was called up, because I was representing my country. I never saw a player play for England who wasn’t willing to exert himself, never.

Video: Wang Dalei at his very best against Shandong Luneng earlier this season.

OSD: It’s said that you treat all of Shenhua’s goalkeepers differently in training, that you are hardest on Dalei and often shout at him.

Walker: Haha, if I shout at him, its because I have high expectations of him. I hope he can always stay hungry to improve, I don’t want him to think “Oh, last season I played so well, this season I’m the same, so I can have a rest now.” If he wins the player of the match award one day, then the next day I’m more harsh on him. I have to keep up the pressure on him. If I find he’s slacking off in training, I immediately let him know this isn’t acceptable, and give him a hard kick up the arse to wake him up.

walker and wang dalei

Wang with mentor, Ian Walker

OSD: I noticed during your training session you guys have bets on things like who can hit the bar, with the losers paying 100 rmb, is this your idea?

Walker: 100 rmb? More like 20! Of course it’ s my idea, because I always win. This is a way to encourage them, because they always want to win money from the coach! But they never win…

OSD: What kind of peculiar training methods have you seen during your career?

Walker:You know, there is a difference between my generation of goalkeepers and the current one, back then, goalkeepers had to do a lot more running. I didn’t like this kind of training, I prefer shorter and more effective training. But one time we went on a long distance run, and ran for ages, we passed by the front door of a pub… that was tough. But it’s already 20 years ago.

OSD:You started your career as a coach in England, but didn’t have much success. However now in China you have done exceptionally well, can the Chinese Super League be a stepping stone for you to work in the Premiership?

Walker: When I was in England, I wasn’t a goalkeeping coach by any means, I was a manager. It was a very complicated time, we were a semi-professional team which was in serious financial trouble, we had to travel by train all over the country for away matches. I always knew I could make it as a goalkeeping coach because I had the right experience. I didn’t really want to be a head coach, the pressure is too much. But honestly, I haven’t been contacted by any Premiership clubs so far.

OSD:You said that to be a top goalkeeper, you really need to have great powers of concentration. How can you develop this ability?

Walker: The most important thing is to be able to maintain concentration levels in training, if you can do it in training, then you can do it during a match. There’s many ways to build your concentration span, personally I like yoga and do Pilates. I’ve told Dalei and the other keepers about these methods, although I’m not sure if they have done it or not. You know, the difference between a good keeper and a great keeper is often their concentration span.

Leaky defence

Leaky defence

OSD: Is this the same difference as the one between you and David James?

Walker: Oh, I’m much better than him! Yeah perhaps this was the difference between me and him. From the first moment I saw him in training I thought, this guy is not the same as other keepers, he was completely on another level. When James was completely focused, I don’t think there was much difference between him and David Seaman. But James’ problem was he couldn’t maintain his concentration for long periods of time, he let his mind wander and this is when he made mistakes. For quite a few years, myself, David James and Nigel Martin challenged David Seaman for the England No 1. jersey, but he kept his consistency all along and threw us aside. So for Dalei’s current situation, I can feel for him, I’ve been through the same thing so we have something in common here. I think Dalei and myself are similar, I hope he can learn from my mistakes.

OSD:But it seems your personalty and Dalei’s are completely different.

Walker:Yes. He’s that kind of guy who is excited about everything, always jumping up and down, ha ha. I’m a lot more laid-back. But in training, I know every thought he has, I know when he is slacking off and I know when he is not concentrating because I have been there and done it all before.

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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