Ian Walker’s coaching contract at Shanghai Shenhua expires next month, but the former England goalkeeper is not fretting about his future. In the volatile world of the Chinese Super League he has learnt that patience is a virtue.
“Even though the season finishes in three weeks’ time nobody knows what will happen next year,” Walker says. “The coaches have one-year contracts. Mine expires on 30 November. They just leave it to the last minute. Last summer the club said they wanted me to stay another year, but I didn’t hear another word until the last game of the season. Literally as the final whistle blew the general manager said to me: ‘Tomorrow you’ll sign your contract.’ That’s the way it’s done here.”
Walker, 41, has been Shenhua’s goalkeeping coach for the last 18 months, which in itself is quite an achievement. The former Tottenham Hotspur, Leicester City and Bolton Wanderers player, whose playing career was ended by a back injury, was recruited last year by Nicolas Anelka (the pair had been on Bolton’s books at the same time) in the Frenchman’s brief spell as player-coach of the biggest club in China’s most populous city.
Anelka was in charge for less than two months before being replaced by Sergio Batista, who in turn was succeeded last month by Shen Xiangfu. Ten men have filled Shenhua’s hot seat in the last six years.
Didier Drogba’s brief stay last year told its own story of this unpredictable world. The Ivory Coast striker joined Shenhua on a contract said to have been worth £200,000 a week, but he was soon in a dispute over unpaid wages and left within four months.
Shenhua were the first Chinese club to break free from government control when Zhu Jun, a wealthy and colourful businessman, became their biggest shareholder in 2007. The 47-year-old plays in five-a-side matches at the training ground and picked himself to play alongside Anelka in a friendly last year. When Manchester United came here to play a pre-season match last July there were suggestions that he wanted to partner Drogba in attack.
Walker recalls: “Apparently Didier said: ‘No chance. I won’t be playing if he does that.’ I don’t know whether any of that is true or not. Some people have a go at the president, but he’s put a lot of money into the club and I think people have to respect that. If it wasn’t for him there wouldn’t be a club. He’s been very good to me.”
Walker has clearly been good for Shenhua, too. Wang Dalei, the goalkeeper, was the club’s only representative in the China squad for this week’s Asian Cup qualifier against Indonesia.
Chatting in the lounge of a city-centre hotel before heading off to a training session, Walker seems comfortable with his life here. He lives in the middle of Shanghai with his girlfriend and six-year-old son. The club provide transport to training sessions: the roads are considered so perilous that the coaching staff are told not to drive. The air quality, meanwhile, can be so bad that Walker checks pollution levels before taking his son outside. He has been relieved to find a shop that sells Heinz baked beans, while the cafe at a branch of Marks & Spencer is a popular refuge.
Shenhua, Walker’s employers, are not the force they were 10 years ago, when they were Chinese champions. Guangzhou Evergrande, coached by Marcello Lippi, are currently the country’s strongest club, having signed up most of the national team as well as expensive imports such as the Argentinian Dario Conca. Shandong Luneng, managed by Raddy Antic, are second in the table ahead of Beijing Guoan. Guangzhou R & F have high expectations after the appointment of Sven Goran Eriksson as head coach.
Walker, who used an interpreter in his first training sessions but now manages without, compares Guangzhou Evergrande’s level of football to the Championship, but says that standards vary wildly. He has found most Chinese players strong mentally but feels some are lazy.
“Sometimes they need a kick up the backside,” he says. “When I first came in the goalkeepers weren’t working hard enough. I get them working hard every day. I’ve told them that’s what they have to get used to. Some of them have said to me they would like to play in Europe. I’ve told them: ‘You should go and see how they train every day.’ They whine and moan a bit about it, but they do it and I think they’ve seen their improvement.”
With matches generally played in the evening, most training sessions are held in late afternoon, especially during the summer, when temperatures can top 40C. “One of the reasons I heard why we train in the afternoon is because Chinese players don’t like training in the morning,” Walker says with a smile. “I don’t think they like getting out of bed.”
He adds: “If it’s raining we train indoors, which is bizarre to me. In England we train outdoors whatever the weather unless there’s a foot of snow which they can’t clear. Now, if it’s raining they say to me: ‘You can take the goalkeepers outside if you want.’ I do that. It’s only a bit of rain, isn’t it?”
Walker says that Chinese football also lags behind in terms of sports science. “As far as nutrition goes I think we have quite a way to go,” he says. “I think the players’ diet needs to be improved a lot. The players eat a lot of rice and not so much protein. I don’t think they get any advice. They pretty well eat what they want.”
Drogba made a huge impact in his short time here. “Our crowds went up from 10,000 to about 25,000,” Walker says. “Everywhere we went he would get standing ovations from opposition fans, which had probably never been heard of here. He played really well. His class was there for everyone to see.
“He’s a great professional. He was really into it in the games. When we drew games that he felt we should have won he went mad at players in the dressing room. Every day in training he would do extra work, working on his free-kicks and things. That rubbed off on the Chinese players a bit. They don’t generally do extra stuff but they did when he was here. And since he left they’ve stopped doing it.”
Crowds have also dropped back to their former levels, while the priority for Shenhua this season has been survival in the top flight – which has been achieved – after they began the campaign with a six-point deduction for corruption. “They decided to hit us with it this season even though it was for something that happened about 10 years ago,” Walker says.
Another club, Tianjin, were also docked points for corruption. “Sometimes referees are brought in from Thailand or Vietnam and sometimes you have to question what’s going on,” Walker says. “When Didier was here he went mad in one of the games. He was saying: ‘You can’t play like this, it’s impossible.’ I think the other team got two penalties which were never penalties. It maybe happens two or three times a season where you think: ‘That’s not right.’
“We played Jiangsu last year at their place. We drew 2-2. They got two penalties. This year we played them there again – drew 2-2, two penalties for them. You look at it and you think: ‘I don’t know.’ But then again it happened once this year for us. Are they just bad referees or is something else going on?”
Despite the frustrations, Walker is hoping to extend his stay. “I’d like to get back to Europe at some point and I’d like to work with a Premier League club at some stage, but I’d definitely like to do one more year here,” he says.
He just might not find out if it will happen until the last kick of the season.
Walking tall: Ian’s career
Born 31 October 1971, Watford
* Club career
1989-2001 Tottenham Hotspur
1990 Oxford United, Ipswich (loans)
2001-05 Leicester City
2005-08 Bolton Wanderers
1990 FA Youth Cup
1999 Worthington Cup
* International career
1996-2004 Four caps for England but only one start
* Walker made 310 appearances for Spurs after joining as a trainee in 1988, winning the Worthington Cup. in 1999 as Spurs beat Leicester 1-0.
* Criticised on his only England start, allowing Gianfranco Zola to score at his near post in a World. Cup qualifier at Wembley in 1997.
* After a brief spell in charge of Bishop’s Stortford in 2011, Walker moved to Chinese Super League side Shanghai Shenhua.