After missing out on promotion to the Super League in the most devastating of fashions last season, Wuhan Zall enter 2015 on a downward curve. With their season kicking off today against League One new boy Hohhot Zhongyou, we take a look at what the coming year has in store for the Hubei club.
The Manager: 37-year-old Zheng Bin goes into his first fall season as a manager after taking over from sacked Croatian Drazan Besek last August. A local boy, Zheng was somewhat of a hero during a successful playing career spent mostly in Wuhan, but has had a more difficult start to life as a manager.
Zheng had been working as Besek’s assistant when the former Shanghai Shenhua boss was inexplicably let go with the team sitting third in League One following a good run of form. The reason for the Croatian’s firing was never publicly explained and he soon published an online letter thanking fans for their support and stating that he was going to take action against the club through FIFA.
That saga is still on going – and Besek will return to Wuhan on March 21st with new side Tianjin Songjiang – but Zheng stepped up to fill the void in a less than convincing fashion. After a couple of wins against weaker teams, Zall lost three straight games to the sides around them in the table and it was those results that ultimately cost them promotion. By the end of the season, many fans were calling for Zheng’s head and he is going to have to produce a strong start to the season in order for that not to happen again.
History: The current club came into being into 2009 following predecessors Wuhan Guanggu’s farcical expulsion from the Chinese Football League the previous year. During a Super League game between Guanggu and Beijing Guo’an, the Hubei side’s recent big money signing Li Weifeng got into a fight with the opposition’s Lu Jiang, prompting them both to be shown red cards and be suspended for eight matches by the CFA.
Guanggu chairman Shen Liefang refused to accept the punishment and neither side would back down; prompting the CFA to throw the team out of the league. Most local fans have long held the CFA responsible for this debacle without ever really considering the fact that the club’s own chairman allowed a team with over fifty years of history to slip out of existence simply because he didn’t want to lose face.
In the aftermath, Hubei Greenery was born and won promotion from League Two at the first attempt. After three name changes and three years in League One, the club won ascended into 2013’s Super League while in its current guise. Unfortunately, their soul season in the top flight was somewhat of a disaster with the team only picking up three wins and finishing bottom of the table by a clear fifteen points.
Amidst much optimism about an immediate return to the Super League, last season saw them miss out on promotion based on their head-to-head record against Shijiazhuang Ever Bright who clinched second place courtesy of a 95th minute penalty on the last day of the season.
Stadium: Wuhan currently play in the ancient Xinhua Road Stadium on the Hankou side of the city. The ground’s capacity varies according to sources, but it certainly doesn’t hold much more than 30,000 people. It’s surrounded by a running track and, because it was built in the 1950s, most of the seating is open to the elements.
The good news is that it’s easy to get to and cheap. It’s centrally located in Hankou and, should you be coming from Wuchang, it is a short walk from Zhongshan Park metro station. Last season, tickets cost 20 RMB for a seat in the corner, 40 RMB for somewhere nearer the middle and just over 100 RMB for a spot in the covered and slightly raised balcony which offers the best view in the house.
The Team: Last year’s crop were among the favourites in League One but underperformed in a tumultuous season. Missing out on promotion by such a fine margin may point to an element of misfortune, but Zall amounted to little more than flat-track bullies for most of the year. They managed just fourteen points in fourteen games against other top half sides, while bagging 43 out of a possible 48 against teams lower down the league.
In 2014 they followed the pretty standard League One formula of playing a 4-2-3-1 with a foreign centre back, attacking midfielder and striker. That looks likely to remain the case in 2015, although they could play with a pair of foreign strikers in a 4-4-2. On paper, the squad remains one of the stronger ones in the league, but more consistency is clearly needed against the division’s other top sides.
The Changes: It hasn’t been a great winter to be a Zall fan as, in terms of domestic players, the team looks to have regressed since last season. Citing newly promoted Super League side Chongqing Lifan’s financial woes, the club’s owners stated they were planning on investing less in 2015 than they did the previous year. That philosophy means the only domestic signings who will feature this season have been goalkeeper Wang Yi, who arrives from the now defunct Chengdu Tiancheng and midfielder Zhang Li, who comes in on loan after being a bit-part player for Henan Jianye in last year’s Super League.
More important have been the losses. Nine of last year’s domestic squad are gone but it is the departures of Wu Yan and Zhu Ting that will be most keenly felt. Goalkeeper Wu was one of Wuhan’s players of the season in 2014 and is now deservedly in the Super League as Henan Jianye’s number one. Zhu, meanwhile, is a diverse player who also had a stellar 2014 in which he increased his popularity with fans. While Wu’s departure may have been inevitable, Zhu has been allowed to join Dalian Aerbin – strengthening one of Zall’s direct promotion rivals.
In terms of the foreigners, it’s also been all change with Sergio Leal, Jacques Faty and Tassio bidding the club farewell. Of the three, only centre back Faty will be mourned. Uruguayan attacker Leal had his moments last season, managing eleven goals, but was too inconsistent to be considered a necessity in 2015. Meanwhile, everybody will be glad to see the back of the lumbering striker Tassio who was, with some rare exceptions, generally atrocious after arriving last summer.
Foreigners: This year’s foreign trio may all be new arrivals, but they each come to Wuhan with solid experience in the Chinese game. Centre back Randsford Addo will replace Faty after being released by Shanghai SIPG. The Ghanaian had spent three years at the Shanghai Stadium and is a veteran of the club’s push to the League One title in 2012. He may not be good enough for the new era at SIPG, but he should be a top performer at this level.
While Brice Jovial may have been relegated from League One with Chengdu Tiancheng, he was one of the Sichuan club’s few bright spots in 2014. A tenacious striker, the Guadeloupe international managed 13 goals for his doomed team last season and, no matter how hopeless, showed the kind of commitment to his club’s cause that can be lacking in some of League One’s foreign stars.
The final signing is Rafa Jorda who finished fourth in the Super League with Guizhou Renhe in both 2012 and 2013. Following his stint in Guiyang, the Spanish forward’s career has somewhat derailed and he spent a short time in Italy with Siena before moving to Dinamo Tblisi. Worryingly, he was released by the Georgian club last summer and hasn’t played since. It remains to be seen whether the 31-year-old has anything left offer.
The Star: Jovial may prove to be a very shrewd acquisition, but winger Yao Hanlin ought to have another stand out year at the the Xinhua Road Stadium. The 29-year-old local boy was the only Zall player to make the League One team of the year last season and it was a justified inclusion given his pace and creativity. With the departure of Zhu Ting, Yao’s attacking burden will likely increase in 2015 and Wuhan fans will be hoping he is able to bear it.
The Youngster: There’s no obvious choice here, but the 22-year-old Kang Zhenjie may finally break through to become a first team regular. The midfielder actually made his debut in a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Guangzhou Evergrande on the last day of the 2013 Super League season, before turning out ten times last year. He hardly stood out, but showed some flashes of potential. With Zall’s ever depleting playing reserves, 2015 may be the year the Hubei native blossoms
The X Factor: This is somewhat of a cop out, but this season’s big variable for Wuhan will be how those League One teams who invested big money this winter kick on. Hubei CFFC turned the most heads but Beijing BG and Hunan Billows both showed serious ambition in the transfer window.All three teams finished below Zall last year and, should their squads gel early on, last season’s nearly men may find themselves some way off the pace come November.
The Prediction: There’s not an awful lot of optimism that Zall can achieve the promotion that so cruelly alluded them last season but, as Shijiazhuang Ever Bright’s promotion demonstrates, this is an unpredictable division. That being said, with the likes of Dalian Aerbin, Harbin Yiteng, Qingdao Jonoon, Hebei CFFC, Beijing BG and Hunan Billows all looking like promotion contenders, it’s hard to see Wuhan finishing in the top two. A top four finish is achievable, but it appears as though the Super League dreams of Wuhan fans in 2015 will die a gradual and early death, rather than the sudden fatal blow they were dealt at the very last minute of last season.