Building a respectable reputation in any line of work requires time, effort, the right results and plenty of satisfied customers. It’s the very same in the world of football management.
Yet something gives the impression that the level of intensity and pressure is heightened considerably as a head coach of a professional club or competitive outfit. It’s all go in the frenzied atmosphere of non-stop hustle and bustle for those looking to become the next big success, and when These Football Times nabbed an exclusive chat with rising English coach Gary White, who is the new manager of Shanghai Shenxin, that became clearer still.
For those of you who don’t know, a few months back TFT first interviewed the 41-year-old Southampton-born supremo to discuss his start in the game as well as his career with the tiny island of Guam whom he helped put on the map by transforming them from Asia’s whipping boys into a team capable of winning matches, sky-rocketing up the FIFA world rankings in the process.
This time around, with that successful spell behind him, club football is the focus for our chat and White was very giving with his replies about his expectations, plans and excitement for his future in the “Middle Kingdom”.
As the bubbly tone of Skype plays on the incoming call, the former Guam manager doesn’t initially sound his normally chirpy self for the opening bars of our chat but a quick glance at my world clock reminds me that while the sun might be shining on the west coast of Ireland, it’s nearing 11pm Shanghai time in his part of the world.
When others might be sleeping after a tough day at the office, White is generously taking time out to chat football – that’s the kind of guy he is, but it also provides a great insight into the hectic nature of his exciting career right now at the helm of a big Chinese club, vying to make it back into the top flight. So I began by asking him how the move came about.
“The club showed an interest about a year and a half ago and then the timing just wasn’t good,” he tells me.
“I got back from England and they were in contact with us again, and they set up a meeting. They had just released their other coach and that was it – it happened very quickly, maybe over a week. I had to get back to Guam and inform them that I was moving on and that was it really. It just happened very fast.”
That the Shanghai outfit had shown an interest 12 months prior tells its own story about how sought-after the coach has been in recent times. After all, the Englishman’s resumé is littered with foreign countries where he’s tried to do things differently, and so far the stories of his various managerial escapades have enchanted and intrigued in equal measure.
So how excited is Gary about the journey to come in the Chinese Super League, and what does he think about the fact that aspiring coaches are continuing to look to him as a role model?
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Read | Gary White: the man who put Guam on the football map
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“I think it’s a big responsibility and I think it’s definitely humbling because a lot of the questions I get asked from young coaches are questions that I was asking around their age,” he informs me
“I guess 41 is still young in coaching terms but I’ve been chasing it for 20 years and that’s all over the world, and I think that’s the message – you’ve got to go and find the opportunities wherever you can and get the experience to put yourself on the map.”
White has certainly trudged far and wide to earn the opportunities available to him thus far – nobody could accuse him of taking the well-beaten path – earning his crust in the British Virgin Islands, the Bahamas and with the Seattle Sounders in the United States of America alongside his three-year spell with the Matao, and it has certainly been great for his admirers and supporters to see him make the most of the experiences, even more so now with the great support and backing behind his new club.
Suffice to say, it hasn’t been easy for him to get to where he is now, but he’s looking forward to taking charge of a big club disguised as a minnow.
“The club is set up in every sense of the word to be a Super League club again,” White chirps.
“They were six years in a row in the Super League. They’ve got a great infrastructure and I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity I don’t think, because it’s going to take a lot of work and effort and the results we’ve seen already in the first couple of days have been very encouraging.”
As we chat, I’m reminded of one of the key traits of White’s – he is confident in his abilities without being the least bit cocky. His performances have proven his capacity to manage and bring the best out of a limited group wherever he has gone, so he has every reason to back himself. It’s easy to see why that will happen again.
On the subject of the growing popularity of Chinese football, I’m interested to discover whether that was a motivating factor in his move there because the country really has attracted some superstars in recent times, and the 41-year-old coach’s likeable self-belief shines through in his assuringly honest reply.
“I decided two years ago that I would get this job. When I first met with [Shanghai representatives], I left the conversation feeling that this will happen and when the time is ready it will happen. The timing has been great, so it’s got nothing to do with jumping on the bandwagon with Chinese football – obviously it’s in the news and there’s a lot of development and a lot of money floating around in the game, but the club itself, it’s a real club, it’s not like some other teams in the leagues in China where they’re just a superstar team and they don’t have any foundation, you know this club has foundation – while the first team is training on one field, next to us is the U19s and then U17s and there’s a whole youth set-up there. So, it’s a fantastic environment.
“Obviously my wife is Chinese so it fits. Again, for any young coach, you’ve got to be definite about what you want to achieve and willing to put in the effort to do so but I knew I would get this job. It sounds very arrogant, I guess, but it just felt right.”
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Read | The story of Chinese football
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It’s a homecoming of sorts for White, then, and no wonder he feels very comfortable with the duties he has to fulfil with the club who play their home clashes clad in yellow at the 30,000 capacity Jinshan Soccer Stadium. That’s despite the fact they found themselves struggling for form and hovering near the bottom of the table a few weeks into the current campaign, before his takeover .
A lesser personality would have shirked the task ahead of jumpstarting the team’s fortunes after their relegation from the top flight in 2015 under Kim Sang-ho which saw the club win just four games in 30 league fixtures. However, when I go looking for White’s thoughts on how he sees the challenge ahead, the desire, enthusiasm and hunger are as apparent as his admirable pragmatism.
“I’m just so excited about this. I don’t see it as a challenge, I’m not worried, I’m not stressed, I know I can improve the club. The three things I promised the president when I signed was that we would be the most organised, we would be the most well-trained and we would have a team that is fit and we would be driven, and those things I can guarantee.
“I guess the most difficult thing will be being able to take a breather because it’s 24 hours, as you know, I mean I can’t stop thinking about the things that I want to do and the things I need to do and, more importantly, the things I want to do.”
It sure sounds like a hectic, non-stop ride but I get a strong sense that the formidable experience he has gained from each stopover along the way to date will serve him tremendously well in getting Shanghai Shenxin back to their rightful place.
His familiarity with steering teams expertly through the tricky chicanes of world football with limited resources underlines just how well suited he is for the role.
Does he think his penchant for overcoming challenges against all odds will serve him well moving forward to help the club veer away from relegation, and how high is he daring to aim for the remainder of the campaign?
“Yeah, I agree with that. I think, to categorise it a little clearer would be to deal with what you’ve got and make the best out of it. The last coach [at Shanghai] had signed all his players, so we can’t sign any more. There is a mini transfer window in June where you can actually re-register players that you already have in your reserves and bring up some of the youngsters, but in terms of bringing in impact players, that allocation has been done so you’ve just got to make what you’ve got work.
“This club has a rich history of being one of the top clubs in China so relegation is obviously not something that should even be thought about with the amount of money that’s been spent already in this club. So, relegation can’t happen.
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Read | What China’s money means for the future of Asian football
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“What I’m looking at is the performances of players to ensure that they are playing to their maximum for us – and that’s week by week, day by day and session by session. The long-term objective is to get stability, structure and then have a platform to jump off for next season to go straight up.”
That his new squad will buy into his philosophy and follow his lead, there is little doubt because, again, a quick look at the way his last team – Guam – responded to his instruction and guidance tells us a great deal about how easily players warm to him.
On the topic of how difficult it was for White to leave that national set-up behind, his response reverberates with incredible pride at the iconic achievement behind him, but is eager to credit so many with the way the team developed from a team who regularly lost by double figures to one who were at one point top of their World Cup qualifying group but more importantly, one who were also able to play good football and remain competitive against countries far bigger and better equipped than them.
“Without Guam, Richard Lai our President, the executive board, the players of the Matao and everybody that’s been connected with me for the last three-and-a-half to four years with Guam they’ve all played a part in me getting this opportunity. So, I’m extremely grateful to those people and Guam – what we did was historic and will never be forgotten. I’ll always be in contact with them whenever they need me.
“It was a tough decision, but it was a decision that I knew I had to make at some point very soon to reach my own personal goals.”
Tough calls are part of the job, but his words act as yet another reminder that it takes a certain level of real character and determination to pull them off successfully.
Persevering in the face of adversity and staying on one’s feet when confronted with barriers designed to trip you up might not be a strength unique to football management but it has certainly taught White a lot about how to deal with stumbling blocks, so his words of caution in the denouement of our conversation to aspiring managers and wannabe touchline maestros are obviously worth heeding.
“I am appreciative of everybody that contacts me and is honestly looking for advice and direction. I think that’s really an amazing thing to be able to help people with, but also there are people that are looking for shortcuts.
“I think my message to those that really want to push on and try to achieve something is that you’ve got to go through the hard moments to be able to come at the end of it with the necessary experience to survive in where you want to be. Because there are so many good young coaches out there that just need an opportunity, and I’m afraid they have to go find it wherever that may be, and enjoy those moments when they’re stressed out and maybe living in places where they don’t want to and it’s not comfortable, there’s a new culture, new methodology, new ideas – and be like a sponge.”
By Trevor Murray. Follow @TrevorM90