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Exclusive interview with former Shanghai Shenxin coach Matt Ward

Shanghai Shenxin

Here at Wild East Football, we had the chance to talk to former Shanghai Shenxin assistant coach Matt Ward to ask him about his experiences coaching in China and abroad.

The Chinese football leagues have welcomed a number of foreign coaches, with some high-profile names such as Marcello Lippi and Sven-Goran Eriksson taking charge of clubs across the middle kingdom.

During a time where there was a perception that British coaches were averse to gaining experience abroad, a team of three Englishmen took on the task of turning around the fortunes of Shanghai Shenxin in 2016.

At the time, the club were in a relegation battle in China League One, having finished bottom of the Chinese Super League just the season before.

The three Englishmen worked together and dragged the club up to ninth in the league by season’s end, with a few memorable victories over some high-profile opponents along the way.

We were lucky to have the chance to speak to Matt Ward, one of the three English coaches that worked at Shanghai Shenxin during this time, to talk about his route into coaching, working abroad as well as his experiences during that memorable season.

Tell us a bit about your journey into coaching.

Falling out of love with the game and finishing playing far too prematurely, I perhaps tried to initially force myself into coaching when I wasn’t ready for it. I had come from a coaching and instructing background and I took my Level 2 course and started to help out local teams.

To be honest, I didn’t really enjoy it and as far as the course went, I didn’t take it all in. Fast forward a good few years and I ended up moving out to Taipei, Taiwan and worked as a P.E teacher.

It was during this time after losing both of my grandparents who helped raise me as a child, that I did some soul searching and asked myself what I wanted to become if I chose to. This was the point when I felt ready to enter the career of football coaching and I immediately set on my way to achieving it.

From that day, things moved quickly in terms of progression in some kind of career and I would say, it’s probably not your average route into coaching! I started helping out with a club in Taipei and after becoming their Head Coach, we won a league title and also qualified through a play-off to qualify for the Taiwan Premier League (the top tier of Taiwan football).

Straight away, this propelled me from basically not really coaching with local teams in England, to then leading a team in a top tier league of a country.

Three years passed and whilst I was on my B licence course I sealed a move to the Philippines to be Assistant Coach of the now-dissolved Loyola Meralco Sparks, in the top tier of Philippines football. This was to be my first full-time role in professional football and it had all happened within four years of deciding I wanted to commit to becoming a coach.

Following the Philippines, I then got an unexpected offer from ex-Chinese Super League club Shanghai Shenxin, who was at the time playing in the 2nd tier of Chinese Football in League One. This was yet another step up in quality and professionalism and opened my eyes to what a coaching role, or at least being part of a coaching team, properly entailed. 

After the Chinese adventure, I moved to Ghana to become Head Coach of Division One side Kotoku Royals F.C and enjoyed some even more eye-opening experiences, both good and not so good.

What first prompted you to coach abroad? Had that always been a desire of yours?

As mentioned before, getting into coaching wasn’t part of an initial plan but working abroad in some kind of capacity was. I’d always enjoyed travelling and had already worked in a couple of countries in the Middle East with the military and in Italy and the U.A.E as a fitness coach, and I had a fair idea that my future would be away from the U.K.

So when my new found path was to be a football coach, being able to do it whilst living abroad was the perfect scenario for me. When people ask why I’m happier abroad I always give a few examples, which are both personal and professional reasons.

For example, I love the warmer weather, the different choices of food and opportunities to experience different cultures and people whilst not letting politics or other things we can’t control be shoved in our face on a daily basis.

If you find a job you really enjoy, your life can quickly feel like a vacation every day so although this sounds great, it’s also important not to spoil yourself and find ways to keep exciting novelties fresh.

Professionally, both for other careers and coaching, I believe if you work hard and have some basic initiative, many opportunities can open up which you may not be able to come across in the U.K.

An example of this would be a kindergarten teacher making close to £3,000 a month in China, or a person with no savings or qualifications being able to open up their own home-made sausage store and becoming successful, or even an amateur football coach progressing to work with National Team players and in top tier leagues of a country….

Without a doubt, it would have been difficult for me to achieve the latter back home.

How did you start working on your British coaching network?

I created the British Football Coaches Network in 2017 when I was working at an academy in Chengdu, China after my stint with Shanghai Shenxin. I was on the treadmill in the gym listening to a podcast with some presenters, pundits and ex-players discussing about not many British Coaches willing to head abroad to work or gain experience – they came up with a couple of names with one being Steve McLaren and Steve Coppell as more recent ones.

I thought what a load of rubbish and poor research by those on the show and such flippant comments with a lack of due diligence. I understood that they were really meaning ‘coaches with recognisable names’ but still, I was disappointed at the fact that I knew there were so many more coaches working abroad in a range of different positions.

Having already started to build my own personal network through living and working abroad and working with different coaches and players, I started to look deeper into British and Irish coaches who were currently working abroad…. I found hundreds!

There were British coaches in the South Korean Leagues, African Leagues, Scandinavian leagues, across Asia with pro clubs and even some working with National teams and country’s federations! This then inspired me to start trying to give all British coaches at all levels extra exposure and the recognition they deserve.

I didn’t want it to be only focused on British and Irish coaches abroad, but also British and Irish coaches currently working in their home countries needing support of developing their careers. From here, everything continues to grow and now I’m genuinely honoured to have a huge amount of connections to many coaches working across the world.

The biggest satisfaction for me now is that slowly, media and others are starting to realise how well British and Irish coaches are doing in different corners of the globe and also, I love hearing coaches who have got a new job due to support from the British Football Coaches Network or by connecting with another coach from the network.

How did the job at Shanghai Shenxin come about?

I was with Loyola Meralco Sparks in the Philippines at the time and we were on a few days break, which I used to go back home to Taiwan to see my pregnant wife.

We were staying in a hotel and fast asleep when at 3am, my phone started to ring – I had forgotten to turn it off which really was a stroke of fortune! I looked to see who was calling and saw that it was Gary White, the then Guam National Team Manager.

Still dazed and confused from waking up all of a sudden, I got out of bed and my wife woke up and asked what’s wrong. I said Gary was calling me and she asked who? … I just replied ‘football’, and rushed down into the hotel reception.

To cut the story short, Gary said that he was to be named Head Coach of a club in China and asked if I wanted to join his coaching staff… I said yes within seconds and without really knowing any other details. I didn’t care.

I had first connected with Gary when his Guam team were coming to Taiwan for a tournament. He was kind enough to let me go and watch one of their sessions and we met and had a chat. At the time I was coaching the Royal Blues Taipei and I had a good knowledge of the Taiwanese players that Guam would face.

During the tournament I put some scouting reports together and also some analysis of Hong Kong and North Korea, to try and help Guam’s cause. I felt a bit bad going against my home country (Taiwan), but I really wanted to help out a fellow British Coach… a couple of years later, I was receiving that 3am phone call!

How was the experience coaching at Shanghai Shenxin and living in China at the time?

Having already lived in Taipei for a number of years and even in the Philippines as an Asian country, I was quite comfortable with moving to China.

I had also been to Hong Kong and Macau and was accustomed to the Chinese culture. That said, China is China and it has its own quirks and personality. China can be an amazing land of opportunities but it can also be a difficult environment to succeed in if you are, shall we say, a bit naive or wet behind the ears.

For me and without disregarding or disrespecting my previous clubs and players, it was a big step up for me in terms of players, environment and working with staff. In our team, we had some good talented younger players with a nice mixture of experience from players who had played in the Chinese Super League.

We had our three foreign players which included Daniel Chima, who was at Molde in Norway, a Brazilian called Davi who had also played in the CSL under Sven for a couple of years and then another Brazilian called Biro Biro who at one point was voted the 2nd best U21 Brazilian player in the World. To see these guys play and to be on the same team as them was a huge eye-opener for me and an amazing feeling.

In all honesty, I didn’t cover myself in glory in a coaching capacity there. I was nervous and at times I had lapses in confidence. I started to realise that this was most likely down to a quick rise in career which could have benefitted with more years learning from more coaches. I started to adjust the way I worked and like all coaching teams, you concentrate on what you are good at and have others work to their strengths too.

Much of my role included match analysis and I ended up basically learning about every player in the league, which foot they turned with, how they took throw-ins, and what kind of passes they would play at in certain situations. Although extremely testing work and 24/7, I loved it!

Something which was great for my development as a coach was having the privilege to work alongside Pro-Licence coaches, Gary, and Louis Lancaster, who was previously at Watford.

I learned so much from them, both in a management and a coaching capacity where they provided a great balance to the club overall. Learning from them eventually helped me when I moved to my next role in Ghana, where I was faced with many challenges which were faced previously in China.

Overall it was a great experience and one which will stay with me forever. Unfortunately, there were a few disappointments too, mostly with the unfortunate external politics which surround football in every country, and there were times that I knew that games were not being fairly contested.

There would be occasions where we had the same match official for two games and during both games, familiar patterns would occur; for example, we would get a man sent off in the 10th minute of one game and the 12th minute of the other game, while the opposition would have a man sent off in the 85th minute of the same game, and then in the 90th minute of the other game… with the result always being the same, generally losing by one goal which was a penalty or a free-kick – by the same referee. I will leave it for people’s own conclusions to be made from that.

What is your favourite memory from your time coaching with Shanghai Shenxin?

There are a lot of fond memories for me so I’ll try to just pick a couple out but the most enjoyable memories were the games we played in and the feeling of seeing and hearing the ball go into the net.

I can’t explain the feeling of adrenaline and relief when scoring, it’s like a release of so many emotions all at once and at that time, every single person on the bench is bonded together through thick and thin.

It’s a 90 minute + battle and they are your family. Some of our games were dramatic and exciting to say the least. Some coming from behind to win and others in thrilling score lines.

We beat Fabio Cannavaro’s team Tianjin Quanjian when they were top of the league and then we also beat Ex-Barcelona B’s coach Jordu Vinyals team when they were top of the league too.

But my favourite win and moment, which will always stick with me, would be going away to play big-spending Wuhan Zall, managed by ex- Italian defender and Juventus Manager Ciro Ferrara. Before the match, after the warm-up, me and Louis were stood in the middle of the pitch chatting with Wuhan’s backroom staff – Italian, well-spoken English and very polite and respectful and they asked where we were working before, just making pleasant conversation.

Louis told them he was at Watford and did some work in Dubai and I quickly told them that I was from the Philippines pro league, quickly skipping any further detail. I then asked them where they were before and they replied with ‘we were the backroom staff of the England National Team with Fabio Cappello’. They weren’t bragging, they were just answering my question.

I laughed out loud and said something like ‘well that’s decent then’, and we all had a laugh about it. At the time we both needed the points to get out the relegation battle we had inherited and we ended up dominating them. It ended 3-1 from being another away match we ‘shouldn’t have won’, we had got our tactics right and our players performed brilliantly.

Beating the backroom staff of the England National team was one of my favourite moments.

Were you disappointed to not have a longer time at the club?

Yes and no. We had achieved so much since joining and basically helped turn the club around. Gary took over the team who were in a relegation battle. We had to turn the whole squad around as the coaching staff who was in before us had left a right mess. There were reserve players in the first team, first-team players in the reserves, fitness was poor and just a general poor professional environment.

To fix all of this and end up only nine points from a promotion place in the end, was a huge disappointment to not being given the opportunity to continue what has been built.

I loved working with Gary and Louis, I loved the intensity of training and matches and the need to fight for every single point. I loved the lifestyle in terms of flying to away games and having accommodation at our training ground and stadiums and I loved being part of a professional club.

On the other side, I had a feeling we wouldn’t have our contracts renewed and I felt that my time at least, was coming to an end. Gary had given me the heads up that contract renewals were up in the air and this didn’t surprise me, as if there’s one thing I’ve learned in football, it’s that you mustn’t take everything at face value.

I knew that all the back-slapping and promises wouldn’t hold their sincerity and at Christmas time in 2016 I was proven right. Looking through twitter, I saw that Shanghai Shenxin had hired new staff from Spain…. Nice!

It hurt but at the same time I had grown tired of the behaviour of the club and their attitudes. It was very clear they didn’t have the best interests of the club at heart and closer to the end, I was tired. The long days and weeks had caught up with me and I was physically and mentally exhausted. It was maybe a good thing that the end had come.

Shanghai Shenxin unfortunately dissolved fairly recently, along with a number of other clubs, what are your thoughts and feelings on that situation?

First Merlaco in the Philippines dissolved, and then Shenxin… I have a good record with this!

I wasn’t surprised, to be honest. The club was managed poorly before and it was only through massive efforts from Gary to fight for change and the rest of us working hard to implement it, that they had some success.

Once we left, they returned to being poor again. The issue with clubs in China, and mostly across the world too, is that too many people want to make decisions they shouldn’t be making. Coaches are hired in China for their expertise, then they aren’t allowed to do the job they were hired for. Interference is too much and there’s too many people giving ‘suggestions’ and battling for their bit of power.

In the end, a majority of owners in China I would say, don’t own clubs because they are passionate about football. They just see it as something to own, for status or for other business dealings.

I’m not sure there is a stable foundation for the clubs to run. They don’t generate enough money through attendances or sponsorships and if an owner needs to pull their money out for other projects, this will likely be done.

Clubs dissolve because they can’t afford to keep running or there just isn’t the passion to do so. The running of clubs is very poor and the interference, as mentioned before, will never allow clubs to be run like proper clubs by people who know how to do their jobs well.

You are consulting now, but would you consider going back into professional team coaching if an opportunity came up?

I stepped away from coaching after my role in Ghana, due to becoming disillusioned with the ‘dark side’ of the game. I experienced too many non-football related things and external uncontrollable factors which damage a coach’s and team’s chance of winning.

For me it’s not about the money, it’s about working hard every day through the week and on game day, getting what you and your team have worked so hard towards. If the fair chance to achieve what you’ve worked towards is taken away, then what’s the point in doing it?

It may not be the right attitude to take and there will be those who accept some ‘happenings’ because they get paid well to accept it, but for me, I can’t work like that with a full heart. It’s just not right and I want to be judged on the work I do, not by the actions which others pay for.

That said, you can never say never and I do still get that adrenaline rush if I allow myself to think about the notion of coaching again. You can’t beat being part of a team and winning as a team and I’m sure there will be a time in the future when I need that feeling again.

Any final advice for aspiring football coaches back in the UK?

Be you and don’t pretend. Be yourself, be human, don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and make mistakes. You will be judged in many different ways but as long as you are comfortable with yourself and how you work, you don’t have to explain it to anyone.

If opportunities or pathways are limited in the U.K, I would certainly suggest looking to get involved somewhere abroad. If you have a strong idea of where you want to be heading towards, be careful not to pigeon hole yourself as a certain type of staff or coach. If you want to be an assistant coach, it’s no good spending 15 years coaching a U6 team.

Final advice, join the British Football Coaches network for support with your career and read my book, ‘Zero to Pro in 4 Years’, as this will give you great ideas on building your own coaching career pathway.

James Reeve is a British sports writer and editor for Wild East Football. James is an avid fan of Changchun Yatai, having been a season-ticket holder in 2015, and has been involved with Wild East Football for a number of years.

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