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Yan Xiangchuang: Back from the dead to captain Harbin

Six months ago, Yan Xiangchuang was out of professional football, there was little interest in him and a mistake, be it by his agent or the club, meant that his one available lifeline was quickly cut. Today, he’s starring for Harbin, named captain upon arrival, he’s making an instant impact as the Ice City side fights to stay in the top flight, it’s been a crazy couple of years in the career of a once very promising player.

Yan’s tale is a highly nomadic one, born in the soccer hotbed of Dalian, he had a love for the game from a very young age and like a lot of young Chinese, he was taken into the sports schools system from a young age. In his case, he moved south to the Qinhuangdao Football School, one of China’s most famous academies, at the age of 7 and was plucked by the old army side, Bayi, seven years later. While he was able to develop his skills with Bayi’s youth team, the first team side’s reign was quickly waning and at the ripe old age of 18 he would make a move to greener pastures, arriving in the Chinese capital.

His arrival in Beijing was at a time when the club was looking towards youth. The year would be Yang Hao’s first real season as a starter for the club and Yan made his debut early in the season, on May 26 against Shenyang Ginde (today’s Guangzhou R&F). For Guoan historians, that date would also be the debut of a 16 year old, who scored in that match, Huang Bowen. By the time he reached 20, Yan was a regular in the starting lineup of one of the league’s top sides and was a regular contributor. In 2007, the winger had his best season, playing in 27 matches and providing 8 goals. Lee Jangsoo was able to get the best out of the youngster and the player and was a regular in the starting lineup, making a massive 29 appearances in Guoan’s 2009 title season.

Yan was flying high, even making his international debut for China in 2010, where he was regularly chosen in the lineup. Yet 2011 marked the arrival of Portuguese manager Jaime Pacheco to the Beijing capital and Yan quickly fell out of favor. Rumors abound that he arrived in camp overweight and didn’t meet Pacheco’s work standards, but others believe that simply an excuse and Pacheco’s personal preference was for the more physical Wang Xiaolong the faster Walter Martinez, and the younger Piao Cheng and Zhang Xizhe. Halfway through the season, Yan would be loaned out to hometown club Dalian Shide, a move that would be made permanent in 2012.

It looked like a great move for Yan, a chance to go home and rebuild his career, and in the seaside city he’d rediscover his form, providing a handful of goals and regularly featuring in the starting XI, but the club’s dissolution after that season and purchase by Dalian Aerbin left him, along with a number of other players in limbo. While they couldn’t be registered by Aerbin, they were effectively the club’s property as “amateur” players. Due to the CFA’s delays in clarifying the situation, it was too late for Yan to move on to another club and for the first half of the 2013 season, he was a prisoner in Dalian, practicing with the first team, but not able to play in matches. When the summer transfer window opened, he was hoping to return to Beijing as Pacheco was now long gone, and the capital side showed interest in him, but instead signed Zhang Chengdong, so Yan quickly worked out a deal with Guizhou Renhe.

Guizhou should have been a good move for Yan, still only 25 years old, but having not played first team football for 10 months, he was far from match fit after arriving in Guiyang and took some time to work his way into the lineup of one of the league’s better sides, fighting for an ACL spot at the time. He failed to impress during his half season in the southwest and was let go, once again finding himself without a club.

The 2014 close season saw Yan meet with yet another cruel twist of fate. Newly promoted Harbin Yiteng were happy for Yan to join their club, but a  mistake in his player registration documents meant that he would once again not be able to feature in first team matches, instead just playing in a few reserve matches.

Finally when this summer’s transfer window opened, Yan’s registration was taken care of and he was finally able to play in Chinese Super League matches. He made an instant impact, given the captain’s armband in his first appearance with the Ice City side, Yan scored a goal and was full of energy, looking like his old self again. It’s only three matches into Yan’s time in Harbin, but it already looks like Yan will be a big factor in deciding the club’s fate this season.

At only 27, Yan still has plenty of footballing years ahead of him, but he’s already been through a lot. If he saves Harbin from relegation this year, it will be a double redemption and hopefully will mark a new, positive chapter in Yan’s career.

Brandon Chemers aka B. Cheng aka A Modern Lei Feng – is a name which may be familiar to many in the Chinese blogosphere. He currently serves as Editor-in-Chief for Wild East Football and is one of the lonely souls writing about Chinese football in English for the last 10 years. Chemers' credentials are second to none – his former blog focused not only on the fortunes of his beloved Beijing Guoan FC, but a multitude of other aspects of Beijing life. He’s deservedly built a reputation in the Chinese blogosphere as an insightful observer of not only Chinese football, but also the wider picture of life in modern China and its many layers. For WEF, beyond writing about Guoan, he often focuses on fan culture and the business of Chinese football.

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