Comparing talent from different eras is a perennial footballing problem. Pub debates rage time and again over whether the stately elegance of Bobby Charlton would survive amidst the break-neck speed of the modern game or if Cristiano Ronaldo would have been able to deal with the borderline assault permitted on artists like George Best in the years where refereeing “protection” for players was a far off dream. Perhaps though the scope of these arguments should be widened to include the people off the pitch as well as on it; after all the nature of management has been fundamentally altered in an arguably similar way to that of playing.
Tactical and motivational geniuses they may have been, but how would Bill Nicholson or Sir Matt Busby have coped with social media codes of conduct, interminable questioning about whether their players would shake hands with one another or even just a Nietzsche copy-and-paste nutbag like Joey Barton? Unfortunately these are the kinds of trivial and taxing issues that managers face in the modern era, making it more of a democratic team game than a dictatorial fiefdom. Luckily for Changle Foreign Language School FC they have recognised this sea-change and responded accordingly; appointing not just one inept ‘keeno’ to manage the Grade 5 squad but three in the shape of Chris Dodd, Henry Cowen and myself.
Thankfully the prospect of any kind of Twitter mutiny has been dampened by the long standing code of conduct put in place by the Chinese government regarding social media - otherwise known as oppressive state censorship and a blanket ban. We’ve faced other issues though and being part of a managerial trio has spread the burden to our benefit. The three of us realise that we are battling against historical precedent – one of the only management teams of three people to inspire us crumbled recently as Richard Shaw, Lee Carsley and Steve Ogrizovich were relieved of their temporary responsibilities at Coventry City in favour of Mark Robins. This disheartening occurrence just served to show that, without focal point of authority around which a team can orbit, mob-management can be hard – and also that Richard Shaw is still persevering with an outrageous hair cut well into middle age.
It is a delicate balance managing together and your role can often shift – one day you might be Jose Mourinho and the next it might be best if you are Pat Rice for a bit. Helpfully, each of us bring different qualities to the table. Mine are mainly a love of Andres Iniesta and, like The Richard Shaw-Shank redemption as his friends probably don’t call him, a ludicrous hair cut that I should have grown out of.
My conspirators also have specific skill sets. As a defender in the York University six-a-side league Henry was feared both for his deceptively deft touch, which left numerous meat-heads red faced with embarrassment as he rounded them with a nonchalant drag back for the fifth time that game, and for his crafty use of the shirt pull, a skill he executed with a subtlety that would make Marco Matterazzi weep with joy. As an Ipswich Town fan he was also privileged enough to see a generation of legends play live on more than one occasion, meaning that like Moses bringing the Commandments down from the Mountain he can bring our team the Gospel of Defensive Solidity according to John McGreal and Mark Venus.
As for Chris, his upbringing on the mean streets of Hertfordshire instills our management style with a dash of much needed grit. In his youth, when he wasn’t collecting PiL vinyls, reading Burroughs or comparing the strength of high street hair spray brands, Chris claims to have boxed at a local gym – the monastic discipline and sporting dedication he learned there is much needed by our tearaways. On top of that he is capable of moments of maverick brilliance that will be a great example for our young charges - at our Beijing training camp, during a ‘friendly’ match, he back-heel nutmegged a Geordie lad before slotting home from a tight angle, a feat which earned him widespread applause from the assembled players and a tackle that erred on the side of GBH from the Tyneside native ten minutes later.
Regardless of our respective talents we have all become the unwitting custodians to two genuinely surprising talents. As mentioned in my last post, two of our players have earned the nicknames Gazza and Xavi thanks to a natural ability that is unable to be tamed in the former and a studious level of technical skill in the latter.
In our recent training sessions they continued to highlight the chasm between themselves and their peers. Gazza, naturally, arrived late to the session babbling furiously and miming actions that suggested he had been kept late in music, but knowing him also could have meant that his free-form jazz quartet were having rehearsal difficulties. He took out his fury on his mate who had volunteered to go in goal for a shooting exercise, blasting the ball past him into the roof and corners of the net with a near photo-shop perfect body position for the next twenty minutes.
Xavi let his guarded persona slip a little as well, which was good to see. During a bit of keep ball practice he was revelling and in watching his team mates chase the groups neat passes, in contrast to previous weeks where he would breezily whip the ball away from the defenders before passing it on with the air of a man not fully present and instead pondering what would be in the canteen for dinner.
It’s clear that working together to make these two central to our team will be essential. Gazza will clearly benefit from Chris’ experience of life in a Home Counties boxing ring, Xavi from Henry’s innate understanding that the rules of football are there to be bent rather than followed every now and again and the rest of the lads – well, if they learn never to get a hair cut like mine then at least we will have achieved something.
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