Pompey coach: My Chinese Super League adventure
The financial muscles continue to be flexed, even referee Mark Clattenburg has fallen for the undeniable charms.
The lure of the Chinese Super League has never been more irresistible, with eye-watering wealth to eclipse even the Premier League’s might.
This month has seen Carlos Tevez secure a reported £600,000-a-week deal following a £40m move from Boca Juniors to Shanghai Shenhua.
Oscar was tempted from Chelsea in a £60m transfer which landed him an alleged £350,000-a-week contract at Shanghai SIPG, while John Obi Mikel followed him from Stamford Bridge with a switch to Tianjin TEDA.
Recently Cristiano Ronaldo’s agent, Jorge Mendes, claimed the player had been offered an £85m annual salary following a bid of £250m.
Even Clattenburg, the Durham official who in 2016 took charge of the FA Cup final, Champions League final and the final of Euro 2016, has publicly declared his interest in joining forces with the Chinese Super League to raise refereeing standards.
Yet while many covet the cash-fueled opportunity, Pompey’s John Keeley preferred to embark on a return journey.
The Blues’ goalkeeping coach spent four months with Guangzhou R&F before reuniting for a second Fratton Park spell in July 2016.
Based in the south of China, the club is managed by former Yugoslavia midfielder Dragan Stojkovic and turns out in the 18,000-capacity Yuexiushan Stadium.
Now he watches with fascination from afar at the country’s ongoing attempts to establish itself as a footballing super power.
Keeley said: ‘Xi Jinping, the president of China, is mad on football and has encouraged all clubs to spend big and try to get as many good players as possible.
‘Every team has two or three really good players which stick out like a sore thumb, the rest are Chinese players. Clubs also only want to buy goalscorers or midfielders.
‘I absolutely loved it out there, but once I discovered I had been given the Pompey job, I couldn’t wait to get back. No disrespect intended, but I wanted to return home.
‘I was Guangzhou R&F’s reserve-team goalkeeping coach – European goalkeepers are not allowed to be involved with the first-team.
‘There was a betting scandal around 15 years ago, mostly involving goalkeepers and goalkeeping coaches from Europe, so the president implemented a ban.
‘The only other English goalkeeping coach I met out there was Ian Walker, who was working under Sven-Goran Eriksson at Shanghai East Asia before both left in November.
‘More coaches are going across but they definitely haven’t lifted the ban and, to be honest, that is probably the only thing the Chinese Super League is missing out on.
‘The standard of goalkeeping is very, very poor.
‘Technically they are not very good, preferring to use their feet rather than hands, and don’t come for a lot of crosses.
‘Some are better than others, but not one of them would ever make our Premier League or even League Two. As a coach, you would have one look at them and say “No thanks”.
‘I took the first-team keepers a couple of times in training, but my main job was with the reserves, who trained a good 75 minutes away from the first-team.
‘The idea is people like myself go out to coach the reserves to try to get them up to speed so they can start producing their own keepers.
‘The age group I was looking after included two aged 19, one at 21 and two at 22. Within four months I got two of them up into the first-team.
‘I made sure they trained so hard, twice a day, even on their days off. It goes to show what you can do if you put the time and effort in it.
‘But I wanted to come home and since returning to Pompey every day has been a pleasure.’
Clubs in the Chinese Super League continue to eye top talent in the English game, with Wayne Rooney and John Terry the subject of persistent speculation of a switch.
It has been claimed others sought by ambitious Far East clubs include Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Daniel Sturridge and Ross Barkley, although surely they remain out of reach.
Regardless, with the 2017 Chinese Super League campaign kicking off in March, expect activity to be ramped up during the month of January’s transfer window.
Keeley added: ‘Most teams would probably survive in League One.
‘But there is also the Chinese weather to consider.
‘Guangzhou R&F are based in the south of China, by Hong Kong, and play a very slow game because it is so hot, really hot. The manager insists on pass, pass, pass.
‘Whereas it is absolutely freezing in the north of China, so they approach matches in a different way.
‘Dragan Stojkovic, or Mr Dragan as is the protocol in that country, is a really nice man who speaks brilliant English and was really good to me.
‘I was the only Englishman at the club and he always sent a car to collect me because you are not allowed to drive out there.
‘Mind you, you wouldn’t want to, I watched others and it was crazy.
‘Now I have a 30-minute drive from Rustington in West Sussex – and it’s great to be back.’