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League One Season Review – Part 3: Five clubs who faced a difficult season

With the year soon coming to an end, WEF finishes off its 2015 League One season review with a closer look at the bottom five. After assessing the promotion challengers and mid-table tusslers over the last two weeks, we now look at five clubs who had difficult seasons toiling in the face of relegation. Shenzhen FC, Guizhou Zhicheng and Hunan Billows succeeded in their struggle for safety, but Beijing Institute of Technology and Jiangxi Liansheng were unable to beat the drop. But with one exception, none of these clubs will look back on 2015 fondly. Thanks to Adem Ali for contributing to the section on Shenzhen FC.   

Shenzhen FC     2015 position -12th     2014 position – 8th     WEF pre-season prediction – 11th

Overview

A very disappointing year for a club that has been in perpetual decline since being relegated from the Super League in 2011. This was yet another season where Shenzhen did not pay their players’ wages on time which was reflected in the team’s on-field results.

Three straight wins in September saved a team that was perilously close to the drop and it is no coincidence that players wages and win bonuses were apparently being paid at that point. That run of results, which saved them from becoming the only CSL champions to ever fall into the third tier, also came under the guidance of Li Haiqiang who was their third boss of the season.

Li Yi Shenzhen

Li Yi was the first of three manager who took charge of Shenzhen in 2015

Li had replaced South Korean Lee Lim-saeng who had himself taken over when another Li, Li Yi, got the push in April. The managerial merry-go-round highlighted the instability prevalent at the club and, once safety had been assured, the issue of wages raised its ugly head again with Senegalese striker Babacar Gueye sitting out the final two games of the season because he hadn’t been remunerated.

The silver-lining for Shenzhen was a dramatically increased attendance which came courtesy of the club moving from the Bao’an Stadium to the more centrally located Shenzhen Stadium. Average gates rose from just over 6,000 to 11,000+ and never really dipped despite the team’s poor performances.

Defining game

In round 19, table-topping Yanbian Changbaishan came to town having picked up seven wins and one draw from their last eight games. The weekend before, Shenzhen had won for the first time in ten attempts against bottom club Beijing Institute of Technology, but nobody expected them to get anything from this one.

In the event, Shenzhen twice came back from a goal down in front of a season high attendance of 15,811 and came away with a 2-2 draw. The result showed what this team could achieve when they were motivated and demonstrated that they really weren’t that much worse than other clubs in the league.

It’s also worth mentioning the 6-0 thrashing they suffered in Wuhan a couple of months earlier to demonstrate just how terrible Shenzhen could be.

Player of the Year

In the past three seasons, Babacar Gueye would have been the undisputed recipient of this award, but the Senegalese hitman managed just twelve goals this season which is paltry in comparison to the 62 he had struck over the previous three years.

2015 was a frustrating year for Babacar Gueye (10)

2015 was a frustrating year for Babacar Gueye (10) and Shenzhen in general

As Adem suggests, it’s tempting say nobody since not one of the players stepped up to show any passion when the team was in trouble – a stance hard to argue with that when you are not getting paid. But for the sake of consistency, we need to give the award to somebody, so let’s say Cai Jingyuan.

The 28-year-old attacker was rendered unemployed when Guangdong Sunray Cave moved to Xi’an and then went bust in the winter, but he managed three goals and two assists in the final six games to help guide Shenzhen to safety.

Looking Ahead

Off season investment from the Hong Kong Honghu Capital Group suggests brighter times around the corner. As well as hopefully meaning financial stability and punctual wages, the club now has a new manager in Tang Yaodeng.

The 53-year-old has had spells at Liaoning Whowin, Henan Jianye and Chongqing Lifan, with his greatest achievement being to take Henan to third place in the Super League in 2009. On the pitch, new players are needed at pretty much every position and, while reports say Andre Senghor has already gone, the fate of Gueye remains up in the air.

Guizhou Zhicheng     2015 position -12th     2014 position – 3rd (League Two)     WEF pre-season prediction – 15th

Overview

Of the five teams in this part of our review, only Zhicheng can consider this to have been a successful year. The Guiyang club placed third in League Two in 2014 and were scheduled to start the season in the third tier until less than a month before the season when Shenyang Zhongze went out of business.

Zhicheng only had time to make three hasty foreign signings before the season and were justifiable favourites for an immediate return to League Two. Things looked bad for Chen Mao’s men when they took just two points from their first six games, but they turned things around in a season punctuated by surprising results and taking points off of superior teams.

Fifteen of Zhicheng’s 30 total points came against sides that finished in the top half and they proved to be League One’s most unpredictable side in 2015. The club lost eight of their last ten games, but managed a couple of wins in the middle of that run to guarantee their survival.

Defining Game

Zhicheng's Yves Ekwalla Herman scored 19 goals in 2015

Zhicheng’s Yves Ekwalla Herman scored 19 goals in 2015, including a hat-trick against Dalian Aerbin

In round 8, Zhicheng played out a wild 3-3 draw away to Dalian Aerbin who were top of the division at the time. An Yves Ekwalla Herman hat-trick, including strikes in the 81st and 83rd minute, put Zhicheng 3-1 up, but the hosts scored twice in stoppage time to salvage a point.

That game perfectly summed up Zhicheng’s unpredictability, which was further enforced when they went to Qingdao and beat Jonoon 5-1 away a few weeks later. At that point, Jonoon were still among the promotion favourites, but Zhicheng took advantage of a first half red card to absolutely rip their hosts apart. Just to emphasise the absurdity of trying to figure Zhicheng out, they then lost 4-1 at home to bottom club Jiangxi Liansheng the following weekend.

Player of the Season

Only one real contender for this and it is centre forward Yves Ekwalla Herman. The Cameroonian had been released by fellow League One club Qingdao Hainiu at the end of last season and looked set to start this one without a team until Zhicheng’s last minute transfer scramble.

The 30-year-old confounded expectations by grabbing eighteen of Zhicheng’s 39 goals and finishing as the fifth highest scorer in the league. Not bad for a converted centre back who was signed in last minute desperation.

Looking Ahead

For the first time in seven years, Zhicheng will remain in the same division for the second season in a row after yo-yoing between Leagues One and Two since 2010. With a tiny budget and an unimpressive playing staff, the club’s focus for 2016 will no doubt once again be survival and nothing more.

New Zhicheng signing Festus Baise (3) in action for Hong Kong against China's Yang Xu

New Zhicheng signing Festus Baise (3) in action for Hong Kong against China’s Yang Xu

Their rushed promotion didn’t really give them any time to strengthen the squad beyond their foreign players, but the fact they remained inactive during the summer transfer window indicates that they would have made few pre-season moves even if they’d had time.

They’ve already made one move this winter, though, by signing Hong Kong international Festus Baise from Eastern. The Nigerian born centre back, who turns 36 next April, attracted attention on the mainland when he and international centre back partner Jean-Jacques Kilama led Hong Kong to two clean sheets against China in this year’s World Cup qualifiers. Interestingly, it seems he will partner the returning Spaniard Iban Cuadrado in the centre of Zhicheng’s defence next season.

The former Shangahai SIPG player turns 37 in February meaning the combined age of Zhicheng’s centre back partnership could be 73 in 2016. The good news for Zhicheng is that it looks like Herman will be back for a second season and he will be joined by midfielder Fan Yunlong who returns to the club after three years in the Super League with now departed city rivals Renhe. Another Hong Konger, attacking midfielder Au Yeung Yiu Chung  has also joined Zhicheng, while Brazilian midfielder Rodrigo will be exiting the club.

With Guizhou Renhe relocating to Beijing, Zhicheng are now the only professional team in Guiyang and may benefit by seeing an increase in attendances. The club’s average of 1,871 was the second worst in the division this season, and they will be hoping to bolster that by attracting abandoned Renhe supporters.

Hunan Billows     2015 position -14th     2014 position – 6th     WEF pre-season prediction – 5th

Overview

The abiding memory of Billows’ season will be Li Xiang’s stoppage time winner against Harbin Yiteng which kept them up in the final game of the season. However, Li’s late heroics added a glossy veneer to what had been an otherwise disastrous season for the central Chinese club.

Li Xiang scored eight goals for Hunan in 2015

Li Xiang scored eight goals for Hunan in 2015

After finishing sixth in 2014, Hunan looked as though they had significantly strengthened their domestic core by signing attacking players Li from Beijing Institute of Technology and Chen Zijie, who had been in the national team squad as a Guizhou Renhe player the previous summer. In the event, Hunan’s season started badly and never really got better as they toiled to a points total of 29, which only kept them up thanks to their superior head-to-head record with BIT.

New head coach Aleksander Stankov had guided Dalian Aerbin to promotion in 2011, but he only lasted seven games before being dismissed and replaced by hands on general manager Zhang Xu. Zhang allowed Stankov’s assistant Zikica Tasevski to take over in August but the GM seemed to have retaken the reins by the end of the season.

Hunan’s terrible season was largely down to all of their head coaches’ failures to properly incorporate their attacking talents into a balanced line-up. They also weren’t helped by the fact that it took sixteen games for Colombian striker Carlos Cabezas to find the net, making Hunan the only club without a foreign goals scorer in the first half of the year.

Defining Game

Hunan’s new look attack disappointed when they drew 0-0 with Qingdao Hainiu in their first game of the year, but the season went well and truly tits up the following weekend when they lost 3-0 at home to newly promoted Hohhot Zhongyou. The Inner Mongolians went on to replace Billows as League One’s sixth place finishers, but nobody knew how successful Zhongyou’s year was going to be then, and this game was a clear sign that something was seriously wrong in Hunan.

Player of the Season

Li Xiang‘s last minute heroics not only saved Hunan from the drop, it made him their top goal scorer and the Chinese player with the most goals in the entire division. Unfortunately, Li’s final goal tally was only eight, indicating the troubles of both Hunan and League One’s Chinese players in front of goal in 2015.

By comparison, Li was only the second highest Chinese goal scorer in the division in 2014 when he netted fifteen times for BIT. Despite only starting twenty games in 2015, Li is just about Hunan’s player of the year, but a very honourable mention has to be given to goalkeeper Dong Jianhong who stopped two penalties in 2015 and put in several performances that were heavily complimented by those who saw them.

Looking Ahead

Igor Burzanovic (10) and Stevan Bates won't be returning to Hunan in 2016

Igor Burzanovic (10) and Stevan Bates probably won’t be returning to Hunan in 2016

This was supposed to be the year that Hunan challenged for promotion and it is hard to see where the club goes from here. Tomaz Kavcic, who led Qingdao Jonoon while they were at their best last season, has been appointed as head coach and the Slovenian could provide the stability that has been lacking in 2015.

The word is that Serbian center back Stevan Bates and Montenegrin midfielder Igor Burzanovic will both be gone next season. Who replaces them is a mystery and, given that Billows made a serious effort to strengthen their domestic playing staff last summer, we may see a relatively quiet winter in Hunan. The focus may be more on getting the best out of their underachieving players rather than bringing in lots of new ones.

Beijing Institute of Technology     2015 position -15th (r)     2014 position – 9th     WEF pre-season prediction – 13th

Overview

BIT’s expectation defying nine year stint in the second tier finally came to an end this season when they were relegated on the last day. Aside from the fact that the club has a minuscule budget and a largely student playing staff, one of the reasons the their long term League One survival had come as such a surprise was due to their energy sapping participation in student competitions which run during the professional season.

That ultimately proved their undoing this season as the majority of the squad jetted off to Gwangju, South Korea in July in order to represent the Chinese football team at the World University Games. The club was just above the relegation zone when their players left to play six games in thirteen days. After returning, they picked up four points from eleven games to put themselves in a hole they couldn’t climb out of.

Three wins from their final four games almost proved enough, but the one loss in that run was against Hunan Billows who ultimately ended up placing above BIT based on their superior head-to-head record. Apart from the trip to South Korea, the other major culprit in BIT’s capitulation was a leaky defense which shipped a league high 64 goals in 2015.

Defining Game

BIT's Andres Marquez celebrates scoring another penalty in 2015

BIT’s Andres Marquez celebrates scoring another penalty in 2015

BIT’s round 16 home match with promotion chasers Hebei CFFC had to be rescheduled because of the World University Games but, when it finally was played during an international weekend while the rest of the division took a break, it proved to be one of the games of the season. BIT were 1-0 up at the break through an Andres Marquez penalty before a flurry of six goals in sixteen second half minutes ultimately saw Hebei prevail 4-3.

Ibba Laajab equalised, but Meng Yang and Maureen Franco then put BIT 3-1 up before two goals from Zhu Haiwei and a winner from Edu gave the visitors the comeback victory. Not only did the game show the fragility of BIT’s defence (particularly in the second half where 40 of the clubs’ 64 conceded goals were let in), it also demonstrated the potency of their attack which was only outscored by six other teams this season.

Player of the Season

With nineteen goals from 24 games, Andres Marquez is an obvious choice here. However, a remarkable ten of the Uruguayan’s strikes were penalties, showing that his contributions from open play were limited.

Instead, we are going to plump for Han Guanghui who captained the side from midfield. Han managed three goals and five assists before his season was cut short by injury with ten games to go. His real contribution, though, came as a leader and midfield organiser who has attracted transfer interest from numerous sides now that his club has fallen into the third tier.

Looking Ahead

Now that BIT’s nine years of over achievement has come to an end, it is hard to know if they will be able to recover. Foreign players are not allowed in League Two and so Marquez is gone along with starting goalkeeper Liu Tianxin who has already moved to city rivals Beijing BG.

Han Guanghui has been the subject of transfer speculation linking him to clubs such as Yanbian Changbaishan and there are also strong rumours that seven goal winger Hu Ming will be moving on this winter. Obviously, an immediate return to League One is the club’s goal, but their ability to recruit players is limited and there is a real danger that they will remain long term fixtures in the third level of Chinese football.

Jiangxi Liansheng     2015 position -16th (r)    2014 position – 1st (League Two)     WEF pre-season prediction – 16th

Overview

2015 just never got going for the previous season’s League Two champions who never once made it above fourteenth in the table. Four straight home defeats was a terrible way to start the season and Jiangxi never really recovered from that run.

Saying that, they were rarely comprehensively outplayed, but rather lacked the quality to eke out results in tight games. Ten of Jiangxi’s seventeen losses this season were by just a single goal and four of their six score draws came about when they conceded equalisers with less than 20 minutes remaining.

Whichever way you look at it, though, Jiangxi just weren’t quite good enough for this level and were deservedly relegated after just a single season in the second tier.

Defining Game

Jiangxi's opening game of the season against Yanbian was an absolute washout

Jiangxi’s opening game of the season against Yanbian was an absolute washout

The opening weekend of the season is always an exciting time to be a fan as a sense of optimism often clouds the reality of what lays in store for you team. Things were no different in Nanchang which was hosting its first game in the top two divisions since Hengyuan relocated to become Shanghai Shenxin before the 2012 season.

Indeed, even the CFA were excited and opted to hold the official League One opening ceremony ahead of Liansheng’s home clash with Yanbian Chanbaishan at Nanchang’s Olympic Sports Centre Stadium. Needless to say, things did not go according to plan as torrential rain turned the entire occasion into a literal damp squib.

Still, over 3,500 fans braved the horrendous weather (not a number to be sniffed at in such conditions) only to see a second half goal from Steve condemn their side to a 1-0 defeat. Of course, hindsight tells us this game was top versus bottom, but nobody knew that then. Instead, it looked as though Jiangxi had been beaten at home by a team that was supposed to be one of the weakest in the league.

That experienced apparently traumatised the football supporters of Nanchang and it was all downhill from there. 3,600 would prove to be the largest crowd Jiangxi would draw in Nanchang all season and the club opted to play their final five games of the year in the much smaller city of Jiujiang where they attracted an average crowd of over 12,400, but still failed to turn things around on the field.

Player of the Season

Even though he managed a far from spectacular eleven league goals and went through a post-mid-season run of scoring just once in twelve games at exactly the time Jiangxi needed him to step up and save them, it’s hard to write off Adi Rocha as Liansheng’s player of the season. The Brazilian’s league scoring tally may not have been spectacular, but some of his goals certainly were as the player who arrived from Zalgiris in Lithuania managed to score from his own half not once, but twice.

Jiangxi's Adi Rocha (7) had an up and down season featuring some memorable moments

Jiangxi’s Adi Rocha (7) had an up and down season featuring some memorable moments

Aside from that, the 30-year-old also managed to score five goals in two CFA Cup games against Super League opposition, including a third round hat-trick against Liaoning Whowin. He also grabbed four goals and two assists in the last three games of the season, but it was too late by then and Adi has surely left Jiangxi wishing he could have found a bit more consistency when it really counted.

Domestically, it’s also worth mentioning central midfielder Wang Jianwen who held the team together as best he could, and 22-year-old winger Zhang Zhichao who was relegated for the second season in a row after going down with Chengdu Tiancheng last year, but has flashed enough potential to show he could develop well if he found himself in a better side.

Looking Ahead

After just a season in League One, Jiangxi return to whence they came in 2016 and, in all honesty, to whence they probably belong. The club will no doubt be aiming to repeat their achievement of 2014 by winning the League Two title, but unless they do some long term strengthening, the best they can probably hope for is another relegation in 2017.

Part of Jiangxi’s problem last winter was that four of the players who helped them win the title in 2014 were loanees who returned to their clubs at the end of the year and so, if anything, their domestic core of players was weaker in 2015. If Liansheng wants a long term future as anything other than a yo-yo club, they will have to try and keep hold of the likes of Zhang Zhichao and Wang Jianwen over the winter, while also building a strong core of permanent players around them. A task that is much easier written than done.

Based in China for five years, Jamie has been exploring tiny little third tier Hubei cities without football teams or decent internet connections, but is now a regular at China League One side Wuhan Zall. A keen football afficionado, he regularly takes in the Chinese Super League, enjoying matches in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Guangzhou and Nanjing. Jamie is also a keen observer of the fortunes of the Chinese National side.

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