Buxton behind Chinese wall

Ken Jones on a man who learned his football in south-east London and is now passing on his know-how and rhyming slang in the Far East
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Of all the things Ted Buxton has imagined doing in his life, acting as a consultant to the Chinese Football Association certainly was not one of them.

Apart from anything else, his past experiences include a spell as an infantryman seeking out Chinese insurgents in the Malaysian jungle. Indeed, Buxton sometimes reflects on the probability that he once picked off representatives of the regime under which his employers operate.

While Buxton's memories of warfare are not introduced lightly, they make his appointment ironic. "It's impossible to be in China and not think about those days," he said last week when we met up in London.

Buxton, who used to be part of England's coaching and scouting set-up, will shortly be back in Peking helping China prepare for World Cup Asian Group Eight qualifying matches against Vietnam, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan that could lead to an encounter with Australia, who are now under the instruction of his close friend, Terry Venables.

"We're good enough to make the Oceanic Group, but that's likely to be the end of it because Terry's team look in great shape should reach the finals," Buxton said. He was introduced formally to the Chinese in Peking last summer, when sent on reconnaissance by Venables before England played a warm-up match prior to the European Championship.

It began a period of Buxton's career in football that can be loosely described as hilarious. "Terry was right to be worried about the pitch because it was bloody awful," Buxton said. "The Chinese promised that everything would be put in order after a couple of games over the weekend, but when I went back on the Monday nothing had been done.

"When I saw the surface, holes everywhere, I blew up. When I asked to see the groundsman the interpreter told me that it was his day off. He eventually showed up on a bike. I called him a lazy bastard, and said that unless he got off his fat arse, England would cancel the game. Within an hour, 150 coolies were at work on the pitch."

In response to questions put at a news conference shortly afterwards, Buxton confirmed that Venables would resign as the England coach at the end of Euro 96. "They asked what I intended doing and, jokingly, I said that I might come back and work in China. The next thing I was offered work by clubs in Peking and Shanghai. Eventually there was an approach from the national federation and, after talking to Terry, I accepted."

Buxton had come a long from south-east London and a moderate playing career with Millwall and in the Kent League, before working at Gillingham and in the United States at Tampa Bay. He had served as the chief scout at Tottenham under David Pleat and Peter Shreeve, later forming an alliance with Venables that was renewed at national level.

Now Buxton was in Peking, living in a hotel room and relying on an interpreter to put his points forward. Buxton, in some moods, likes to deprecate the importance of his appointment, although it is naturally impossible to deprecate anything without mentioning it. He does not wish it to obscure many humorous experiences. "After a while I discovered that a couple of players speak English and one of them, a goalkeeper I only know as 'O', had picked up my rhyming slang. I found out when he came in after a match and said: 'Ted, I'm f***ing cream-crackered'."

Nothing much is as Buxton imagined. One of the things he had to jump on was smoking in the dressing-room at half-time. Not the players, but the coaches. "When I opened the door you couldn't see or breathe properly in there," he said. "The chief coach and his two assistants were puffing away, so were the physiotherapists, or doctors as they call them. We were two down and the players were sitting there dejected, heads in hands, having their lungs polluted. I put a stop to that, but in other ways the Chinese are very professional."

The national team is drawn from China's 12 leading clubs whose players must prove their fitness pre-season at a spartan training camp. "It's murder," Buxton said. "They run 10,000 metres a day and are put through routines while doctors stand alongside taking blood from their ears. If they don't measure up to set standards, that's it, they're out. It really is hard, a bloody boot camp that would horrify our players."

Buxton's original brief - he has a contract until the end of June - was to put China on course for the 2002 World Cup, but success in the recent Dunhill Cup tournament has heightened expectations. China, in competition with Bosnia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam, won all their matches, scoring 13 goals with only two against. "It caused a great deal of excitement," Buxton added, "and proved to me that they are quick learners. The leading players get good money, even by our standards, and are very receptive."

One of the things Buxton managed to get across in time for the Dunhill tournament - China were put out at the quarter-final stage of the Asian Cup - is that football tactics are not set in stone. In doing so, he realised again that examples can lead to confusion. "One day, when we were behind at halftime, I said that there are times when you have to play like Wimbledon, meaning like Wimbledon used to. They looked at me with blank faces because the name, never mind the idea, didn't mean anything to them. But they watch a lot of our football and know all the leading players, Gazza especially. They all want to know about him."

An interesting thing, you may think, is the number of tall players China can call upon. "The idea that they are all midgets is bollocks [another word that now figures in the team's burgeoning English vocabulary]," Buxton said. "They have some big guys and are now making better use of them at set-pieces. That's mainly what I do with them, updating their awareness of things that are natural to players in other countries, getting the shape right, putting the tactics in order. They have plenty of technical ability and have become difficult to beat."

Buxton finds it a strange, lonely life. For a while he had Jimmy Rimmer over as a goalkeeping coach, but spends a lot of time in his own company. The philosophy of a natural itinerant stands him in good stead, and he stays in touch with Venables.

One of the many experiences in his life to which Buxton refers in ordinary conversation is that perilous stint in Malaya when on National Service. "As a professional footballer, I expected to get a cushy number, instead I was sent to the 3rd West Kents an ended up out there with a gun in my hand getting shot at."

When David Pleat once asked Buxton if he had killed anybody, he replied in the affirmative. Understandably, that does not figure in conversations over the crispy duck and chop suey.