During our piecemeal training for life, and teaching, in China our suspect online course made reference to the idea of “culture shock”. In broken English the “culture shock” we could expect in the East was defined in clinical terms, like a drug being advertised on American TV – side effects, included everything from “mild anxiety” to the slightly more troubling “uncontrollable bouts of weeping”. Not many things have brought the three of us within range of a dreaded “UBOW” during the months we have spent here- but at times our experiences managing the Changle Foreign Language School Grade 5 squad have brought us perilously close.
See, organisation here at Changle Foreign Language closely resembles a trademark Ben Thatcher elbow to the head – it’s blunt and a real pain to deal with. Chris, for example, received his teaching timetable roughly ten minutes before his first class. At the weekend two workmen turned up unannounced at our apartment, messed around with our heating, made stagnant water leak all over the floor and then cheerily left. Logistics are not our hosts’ strong suit.
Whilst these problems obviously throw into sharp relief grave issues, such as the warped relationship between Chinese individuals and institutions and the relevance of pre-conceived notions of authority in an oppressive political system, for us it largely means one thing; it’s a real shit to get training organised.
The last two weeks of our management regime have been dogged by organisational problems. Our main point of contact to try and arrange time with the team is “The Director of Foreign Experts Affairs”, otherwise known as Mr Shu – mainly known to us by the not-really-affectionate nicknames of Shu-box, Shu-bacca and Total Mentalist.
It seemed that we had turned the corner with Mr Shu when he sat us down for a chat about our “long term plans” for the team. We set out our goals of continued training and maybe some competitive games so they could test themselves against outside opposition before Christmas and Shuey, strangely, responded quite well. This was a welcome change on his part as usually, despite specifically asking us to get involved in managing a football team, he greets our our requests for anything involving the squad with the kind of mild surprise that would suggest this was the first he had heard of the whole thing.
Unsurprisingly there have been testing times and recently has been the worst of our tenure. It started when we arrived for training to find some of the older kids being organised into teams by a PE teacher with a stash of bibs. Since we have started with the team we have had to employ a ragged “Most Prevalent T-shirt Colour of the Day Against Everyone Else” selection policy for practice matches. That the school didn’t think to tell us that they had a shit tonne of equipment lying around pretty much summed their organisational skills up. They couldn’t start a fire in Mario Balotelli’s bathroom.
The very next day, after a run of much improved training sessions, we arrived at the usual time to be greeted by an empty field. The pitch is usually occupied a scrum of kids playing various sports in their free period but on that day it looked like a set from 28 Days Later.
Without notifying us it appeared that the students’ ‘yard time’ (for want of a non-prison related term) had been sacrificed in favour of a few last minute cramming sessions for the exams scheduled at the end of the week. It’s not a problem that Jose Mourinho (or even Mick McCarthy for that matter) normally has to contend with.
I couldn’t believe that the lads would let it stand. They continue to labour under the impression that we know what we are doing with regard to coaching and, as a result, tend to get pretty excited about the prospect of football training when Wednesday and Thursday roll around. They get so excited in fact that I almost had a ‘dressing room bust up’ with our left back, who is in my Grade 5 class immediately before training and insists on doing shit-all work whilst shouting “Teacher! Play Football!” for the entire forty-five minute lesson.
I imagined Gazza, a pudgy middle finger raised at the CCTV cameras in protest, storming out of the classroom with a ball tucked under his arm. Xavi too wouldn’t accept this miscarriage of justice and would lace up his boots like any other week before walking slowly out into the cold winter evening with his team mates at his back.
Sadly, it wasn’t to be.
It was the classic example of the ‘football people’ being scuppered by the suits in the boardroom; Cloughy had felt the pain of their ignorance for his whole career and now so had we. There was talk of resignation, there was anger and there was a look that said “Who are you again?” in Mr Shu’s eyes when we questioned him – but ultimately pragmatism prevailed.
Learning to work with him is part of our managerial education; clearly being astute enough to politically manoeuvre the best outcome from a board or a chairman is an integral part of being the boss in the modern game – it’s just unfortunate for us that Mr Shu makes George Reynolds look like a benevolent philanthropist.
We’ve got to get on with it because out on the stubbly 3G nonsense otherwise known as their home pitch Changle FC are taking care of business. Every week they listen, improve and have fun. We’ve even found a ‘keeper – a lanky converted centre back who randomly volunteered to go in nets one week and hasn’t left. I’ve taken to calling him Charlie Watts because, just like the Rolling Stones drummer, he plays in an upright, classical way when all around him there’s chaos, and is clearly older facially and mentally than his peers.
As Christmas approaches our time with Changle FC will be curtailed by the brutality of the winter in Shandong Province. Hopefully in the few remaining weeks of our season we can steer clear of Shu-bacca and the feckless bureaucrats and stay true to our romantic footballing notions.
We just have to accept the fact that, as that sage old philosopher Ian Rush once said of living in Milan: “It’s like living in a foreign country”.
And that was only fucking Italy.
Jake Farrell is one third of The Heavy East Podcast which can be found here. He will be tweeting his way through a year in China via @jakefarrell7