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Coaching in “hard mode” in China’s second division – Gary White’s Shanghai Shenxin turnaround

STOP PRESS: Shortly after this interview was completed, Gary White’s contract with Shanghai Shenxin was not renewed, despite an impressive record at the second tier club. What follows is the interview as conducted just before the Chinese football management merry-go-round spun once more.

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Gary White took over a free-falling Shanghai Shenxin back in May with the China League One side staring a second straight relegation in the face after dropping down from the CSL the previous year. In a fascinating face-face exclusive interview, the up and coming young English manager reveals how he masterminded a reversal of fortune for the Jinshan district club who he feels will be among the favourites for promotion next year.

It’s easy to forget that, with the vast riches being poured into the Chinese Super League, a fiercely competitive second tier – the China League One (CL1) – lies beneath. Gone are the days when a modest investment in marginally better staff and players would virtually guarantee promotion for a club to the CSL  – there’s now several clubs with rich backers now all vying for a place at the top table in Chinese football. Beijing Renhe, Beijing Beikong, Dalian Yifang, and most of all, Tianjian Quanjian, who spent big sums to purchase Chinese internationals Zhao Xuri and Sun Ke and are managed by Fabio Cannavaro, were just some of teams with the money and /or players to be considered as promotion race participants this year.

At Jinshan Stadium

At Jinshan Stadium

Lacking from that list of clubs is Shanghai Shenxin and it was a surprise to no-one that the relegated side were not on the list of promotion contenders this year. Indeed, to say Gary White jumped in at the deep end in China would be putting it mildly. Based round 50km out in the suburbs, Shanghai Shenxin are very much the poor relation in Shanghainese football and come in a distant third behind CSL sides Shenhua and SIPG in terms of not just popular support but media column inches and financial backing. Shenxin won just 3 of their opening 13 games before Gary took over at the end of May this year, but was given no money to improve the squad. Whilst many clubs in China can spend their way out of trouble after a poor first half of the season during the summer transfer window, financial constraints meant that Shenxin could only promote five players from its youth squad to bolster the first team.

However the Southhampton native saw Shenxin’s plight as his biggest challenge yet, having landed the job based on his proven track record of turning no-hopers into respected sides. He gained considerable recognition for his work in transforming the Guam national team from the whipping boys’ whipping boy into a vastly improved outfit which triumphed in one of Asian football’s most eye-opening upsets to date – Guam, population 180,000, beat India, population 1.2 billion, 2-1 in a World Cup qualifying preliminary in June 2015.

With his solid background as a fully qualified coach and international success in Asia, Gary exudes an affable but dedicated air when its time to talk football. “When I arrived at Shenxin they were in free-fall – they were going down,” he said, “And it wasn’t because of football because the players could play football, and it wasn’t tactics because tactics are just tactics, it was a question of if the players wanted to do it,” he added.

“I noticed right away there wasn’t desire to play. The only person responsible for that is the coach so my job was to change the environment to a more positive one and give them belief and that is what I set about doing as soon as I could.”

A general malaise had sunk in at Jinshan Football Stadium and the club was rudderless despite playing at the same stadium for two years in a row for the first time since 2011, their last season in Nanchang before relocating to Shanghai in 2012. Since then they have switched back and forth between Yuanshen stadium in Pudong and Jinshan’s 30,000 football specific stadium but recently signed a 10-year agreement to stay in Jinshan.

Gary explained that he believed clubs need to know what they stand for – something which takes time and is difficult if there are constant changes such as switching coaches this can’t come about – the club and the coach must be on the same wavelength to lead to success – and there are a great many challenges to this.

Typically in Chinese clubs, incoming managers have to negotiate the tricky minefield of pre-existing player, staff and boardroom relationships. Feathers are easily ruffled by any new power-broker, and as anyone who has watched Chinese football for any length of time knows, how well you play isn’t necessarily the key factor in deciding if you get a game or not. Many clubs have senior players in their ranks who may have a good relationship with the owner or staff at the club which is translated into pressure, discrete or otherwise, for that player to get a game.

Gary revealed that when he first arrived there were some characters in the dressing room who he had to size up very quickly in his very first team meeting at Shenxin. “You arrive in a meeting with 28 players all facing you they have never met you before they have no idea who you are – you aren’t a big name,” adding, “I won’t mention any names but there was a big player who had obviously been in first team meetings with new coaches many times – he was slouched and obviously not interested in what I was about to say and I had to capture that player’s imagination because he was an alpha dog.”

Gary on the training field

Gary on the training field

He continued, “Immediately I slammed my hand on the table in front of him really loudly and pointed right at him because has looking right at him and I said ‘look, don’t you think first impressions are important?” and then he sits up, the guy next to him was wearing a cap, he takes it off and immediately I have his attention. And then you get the respect.”

The player went on to be a key man and Gary believes that identifying him as an important dressing room figure and getting him onside at the start was key to turning the club around, but ultimately not everyone made the cut including some established players who he had to let go to make way for reserve players to be registered with the first team in the summer transfer window.

“I had to discard some regulars,” he said, “It’s not easy, you have to listen to people in the club, and one player in particular had a good relationship with the chairman, but the only way to do it is to let everyone know what is expected of them then give them a chance, after you set your standards its clear without any cloudy area, that’s what you expect, if then they don’t do it then it is the players fault.”

“My attitude is I work hard you should work hard. Then its a question of saying who is available who wants to do it. Once I decided on players not willing to sacrifice for me, they had to go – but for the new guys who came up to the first team it showed everybody at the club that if you work hard there are opportunities,” he explained.

As we see so often in Chinese football, numerous aspects away from the pitch itself influences how things are. For Gary the mentality of the players was a big issue and there was not only a lack of confidence among the players when he took over, but a lack of focus about what they wanted from their careers and life in general, to try to get players to act more creativity and make decisions for themselves.

“I asked one young player ‘what do you want?’ he told me he wanted to own a house. I asked him where, he said he didn’t know. So I told him to go out and find the house he wanted and show me, he came back the next week with some pictures of a place in the city,” Gary said, adding, “I quickly saw an improvement in his game.”

And improvement all round was needed – ironically it was two of the leagues less-fancied teams who ended up in the thick of the promotion race – Qingdao Huanghai and Guizhou, but that only under-lined how many strong teams Shenxin had to compete with in addition to the likes of Beijing Beikong and Dalian Yifang who didn’t perform as well as expected this year.

On the touchline

Touch line tension

“I wanted to make Jinshan Stadium into a fortress and everyone looked at me like I was mad when I said that because their home record was poor – but if there were ten more games in the season we would have won the league,” he said, adding, “We scored the second highest number of goals in the league after Tianjin Quanjian – when I picked up the team we had only scored 11, yet we ended up scoring 54 in total.”

Focusing on home performances was a tactic which paid off as things were somewhat different away from home. On the road, the fascinating football cauldron that is the China League One took Gary to some rather exotic destinations and situations this year as he revealed, “The Inner Mongolia crowd were lively, absolutely mad – we lost the game and there were thousands of them outside the match around our match just very angry,” he said, adding, “What was interesting is that they were telling us we were going down. I’ve played at the Azadi Stadium so I’m used to crowds, but this crowd was very very hostile even though they had won – getting on the coach there was literally an army of guards on either side of us, it was a really hostile environment, it’s a difficult place to win in, and you wouldn’t want to play there – Hohot, but these are the places where you have to win if you want to be promoted.”

Tapping into China’s cultural and social environment has been something Gary utilized well to motivate players who he felt had the talent but were lacking application – with attentive and focused man management a key element of his coaching approach at Shenxin.

“You have to find out about players, what turns them on what motivates them you need to go beyond the usual football stuff and get to know their families, he said, adding, “One time we had a really big game coming up so I had my staff go out and contact the players families and had a message made by the families to be shown to them on match day – it gave them a reason for playing the match, who they were doing it for and I remember talking to Liu Chao’s father before a match and that was when I realized it was paying off.”

Such an astute observation of the centrality of family in Chinese life, and his dedication to nurturing these relationships were surely a big part of Gary’s turnaround of Shenxin – in 19 games as coach, Gary led his resurgent side to 9 victories and two draws and a 10th place finish.

“You know when you are doing well when one of the players scores and he runs to you – that for me is the biggest complement as a coach when he runs 50 yards and he hugs you – there is a reason for that,” he said.

Gary’s own family connections also paid dividends to his coaching career this year in the shape of his Chinese wife, originally from Harbin but now settled in Shanghai with their one-year-old son.

“My wife is a great support mechanism, she’s brilliant for me and keeps my feet on the ground.  We beat Tianjin at our place, Cannavaro’s team, they were on a winning streak and everyone was going nuts but my wife said to me ‘it’s just one game don’t get too carried away’ and she was absolutely right.”

Having a Chinese spouse also helped Gary negotiate some tricky situations on the training ground. He explained the players organized a fun game where the loser would have to buy the whole squad ice cream. Gary had not long been at Shenxin and didn’t realise the youngster who lost wasn’t earning that much money and the forfeit hit his pocket harder than intended.

“I spoke about it to my wife, she said you should pay that for him as boss – so I gave him a red envelope and these little things make a big difference – that player ended up being a key player for me this year who came from the reserves and up into the first team.”

Generally, Gary believes that in many cases, Chinese players are easier to coach than their western counterparts. “It’s just a different culture and education history compared to western culture. You can turn this around to be something positive and not negative,” he said, adding, “Here there’s never any discussion of your instructions, they just want to please the coach, but in western culture there’s often too much arrogance and indiscipline.”

Serious business

Serious business

“There were a few players with their hair dyed yellow when I took over and I told my translator I wasn’t keen on dyed hair – Monday morning they all came in with their hair dyed back to their normal colour!”, he added.

Having a solid translator seems like an obvious base for a foreign coach in China to cover. Not only is there a language barrier but also a very significant cultural one and a shared interest in football is not always enough to bridge the gap. A translator in China does much more than simply convert one language to another, as Gary confirms.

“You have to connect with players emotionally – it wasn’t easy with the language barrier but my translator is fantastic, he’s more than a translator he’s a personal assistant who goes way beyond translating – a lot of coaching is communication and if you are not getting across the messages you want to get across then you lose your impact,” he said.

A football translator must be an extension of the self, says Gary. “To connect with the players its imperative that the guy who is my voice says the same thing with the same passion – ge mirrors me, we practice movements, he steps forward at the same time the body language is so important, its like having a mini-me on the side-line, ” adding, “I don’t know about most coaches but I have worked in Japan where I needed translators and now in China, and if the person you have on the right side does have the same passion and motivated – you need to get to know them outside of work, we had to go to dinner together, watch films together, to get to know each other so he could mirror me and know what I am thinking.”

Overall, Gary said that overall this year’s turnaround was down to the willingness of all the players to take on board his coaching and their positive response to his motivational techniques. He singled out former Shenhua youth prospect Gu Bin as one of his key players this season, who played in all but one of Shenxin’s 30 league games and scored three goals. “He just needed some belief and confidence” said Gary, who also singled out midfielder Liu Chao and Brazilian forward Biro-Brio who he describes as “One of the best foreign players in China – hands down.”

For the future of Shenxin, Gary feels the club has sold too many of their best players but there is a focus on youth development ‘they have one of the best youth setups in the country – it’s world class’ he says and wants to improve their youth system further.

“I think right now between myself and the boss we understand it’s important to give young players the opportunity but this club deserves to be in the Super League, being in central Shanghai would be better for the fans but if the club is run properly and the players are playing good football the plans will come and the fans are starting to come,” Gary believes.

There’s no doubt that Gary has a stronger grasp than many foreign coaches on what managing in China is all about, but how long is he likely to stay? “Indefinitely,” is the response, adding “I am really enjoying my time at Shenxin as it’s a fantastic club with some really great people but my main goal is to help improve players and Chinese football and if that means looking at new opportunities then I am always open to this.”

Gary holds the highest quality coaching qualifications available – a UEFA Pro License and an FA Elite Pro Licence. With such a forward-thinking and culturally aware approach, Chinese clubs should really be tripping over themselves to have someone of his caliber with a longer-term approach on board.

UK trained journalist and long-time Chinese football observer Cameron Wilson has been writing about Chinese football for over a decade...

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