There’s an old joke about the first training session of the 1993 preseason at Newcastle and it goes something like this: Goalkeeper Pavel Srnicek was in his fresh club kit, hoping to impress new manager Kevin Keegan after a long period out in the cold under Ossie Ardiles. By way of introduction, King Kev gathered his troops and gave them an introductory pep talk. “Now lads”, he said midway through his speech, “there are some members of our squad that really struggle with the English language so let’s go out of our way to make sure that we speak simply so that they can understand us.” Srnicek noted this and was keen to assure the boss that his English was up to scratch – he’d been practising all summer. He told Keegan as much after training, who laughed and said: “Don’t worry Pavel son, I was talking about Brian Kilcline”.
Now, while referencing this beautiful myth mainly functions as an excuse for me to write about Brian ‘Killer’ Kilcline, it also serves to highlight an important fact – in the modern age of football communication is key, especially when your squad encompasses various nationalities and languages. As managers of the Changle Foreign Language School Grade 5 squad the linguistic divide is even more stark for Chris, Henry and I. We don’t speak Mandarin Chinese. Our players barely speak English. All in all, meaningful communication is as about as rock hard as the average Brian Kilcline two footed tackle.
We have been training for a few weeks now and have so far been able to survive on a rudimentary “one, two” instruction system – denoting a first touch and pass and accompanied by suitably nonsensical manager-like gestures. We shout it at every possible opportunity and it handily functions in two ways; firstly by being ludicrously simple to understand and also by reinforcing our purist pretensions towards total football. Clearly though this could only get us so far and to communicate more sophisticated ideas to the kids we would need to introduce them to the full range of footballing jargon.
This week rather than continuing to run around the field shouting “one, two” like give and go fixated mentalists we opted to head into the classroom. The team briefing and the idea of the footballer as an athlete-scholar is ubiquitous amongst cutting edge coaches nowadays, as anyone who has watched Brendan Rodgers excruciating pre-match powerpoints on Being Liverpool will testify. This would be our version, just simplified.
We were superbly aided by Pei-Pei, a friend from school whose fierce intelligence has led to her being ear-marked as a candidate for transition, Mourinho style, from translator to gaffer when we move on to pastures new. In preparation we have been teaching her some English idioms like “When it rains it pours”. By the end of the year she’ll be au fait with the idea of the ‘come-and-get-me plea’, will be able to confidently say she is ‘flattered by speculation’ and will have no trouble ‘launching a stinging verbal tirade’ against referees.
At first the team were shocked to see us in our smart casual gear (we’re tracksuit managers through and through, although we stop short of the Pulis baseball cap) but thanks to Pei-Pei we were able to get them all inside without too much difficulty. There had been worries that Gazza, our precocious star player and all round showman, would kick off but he serenely accepted the change in training schedule. This was probably due to the fact that the tuck shop was out of cans of Coke and he wasn’t as off his tits on caffeine as he usually is but may also have been a sign that he is tempering his rebellious streak.
With the aid of stick figure diagrams and Pei-Pei’s Mother Theresa-like patience we proceeded to go through the basics of positions, on-pitch vocabulary and a few key ideas that we wanted them to understand – namely that they had to use space better rather than bunching together and that they had to move up and down the pitch as a unit rather that individuals. Their attentiveness and keenness to learn was amazing and served as another reminder of the startling innocence and earnestness of the Chinese kids we have taught in general. Had we tried a similar tactic in the school I went to in England I suspect we have may have been less than politely invited to go fuck ourselves.
During the “briefing” we had also intended to introduce one other key word – Captain. There was clearly only one candidate for this role, the brilliant and scholarly Xavi, a twenty-eight year old Barcelona player trapped in a ten year old Chinese kid’s body. The plan was to translate the word, explain its importance to a football team and then give Xavi the just reward of being anointed as skipper in front of his adoring peers. However, no sooner than the Chinese word was out of Pei-Pei’s mouth, every one of the team had clearly understood its resonance and turned to point at Xavi, with even Gazza giving an appreciative nod, indicating he was their leader on the pitch. We didn’t need to bestow the title on him to earn him the respect of his team mates – somehow he had already been given it. It was a brilliant moment.
We’ve instituted twice weekly training for the last month so the day after the translation session the lads had a chance to out their new found knowledge into practice. It was fantastic to watch as they came bounding over to start, shouting “Pass!” at one another to show they had taken it on board. It became even more enjoyable as they continued their progress by passing neatly and confidently in a small sided game. Gazza scored two, the first a scarcely believable first time effort from twenty yards out that was in the bottom corner before the keeper had even moved. Xavi is now so confident that he often drops deep, demands the ball from Chris, Henry or I in goal and then prompts his team into coherent attacks from there. Slowly and steadily we are getting somewhere and it becomes more fun and fulfilling with every passing week. There is only one direction we can go in now. Hala Changle!
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