Ian Cusack inadvertantly found out where the next generation of Chinese stars is coming from - Slough

Most teachers of English as a foreign language spend the close season working in summer schools, where the work is badly paid and desperately unrewarding. This year, however, I found my dream post. “WANTED!! Exper­ienced teacher with a knowledge of football to teach a party of teenage Chinese student footballers.” A quick email of my CV and a five-minute phone interview got me the job. The place was called Teikyo Women’s College, just outside Slough. On arrival I was introduced to my colleague, who would coach the team while I was employed to teach in the afternoon and show them videos at night.

He was Glenn Cockerill (right) veteran of over 700 league games and a player I’d always admired. Thankfully, for those who hate to see illusions shattered, he was a smashing bloke, but in need of an even break from the game after premature departures from jobs at Orient (thanks to Barry Hearn), Fulham (Mohammed Al-Fayed), Brentford (Ron Noades) and Crystal Palace (all-round financial crisis). So here he was training Chinese teenagers.

They came to Slough thanks to Pepsi, who have set up a soccer school in Shanghai in collaboration with the Palace defender Fan Zhiyi. Of course, kids had to pay to go there, but the best pupils at the end of the 2000-01 season were rewarded with a trip to England to get the best possible coaching and help with their English. In other words, me and Glenn.

Thus on August 7 we assembled under the Heathrow flight path, with the Wycombe Wanderers youth academy playing head tennis on an adjoining complex, and tried to assess what we had. Of course, with non-footballers in charge at the Pepsi end, the players chosen were hopelessly mismatched. There were nine of them, ranging from 13 to 17 in age and all either right midfielders or left wingers. As you’d expect from a selection process that involved ball juggling and dribbling round cones, they were all highly skilled greedy little sods who never passed to one another.

The immediate problem was communication. The kids had a smattering of basic English and I could improve that in normal circumstances. However, with only two exceptions, the kids didn’t want to learn English, they wanted to play football. A quick trip to the town centre saw me return with a dozen football videos and various kids’ books on the game. Thus, instead of preparing worksheets on defining and non-defining relative clauses or the seven ways to express the future in English, I followed Glenn around listening to what he said to the kids, often being roped into playing in goal. Perhaps the highlight of my career thus far, footballing and educational, was saving a penalty from him in training. He did take it left-footed, but I’m not complaining.

My teaching consisted of rendering this specialised vocabulary in simple English, with the aid of video clips, pictures or stick drawings. It would have been a similar problem whatever the kids were doing; car mech­anics, brain surgery, playing the bagpipes. From an educational perspective it was a fascinating challenge, but to be done properly you would need to write a proper course book for them entirely related to football, as well as teaching them “normal” English. Rather like Terry Venables on arriving at Middlesbrough, I was seriously hampered by the lack of a tactics board.

On the pitch the kids improved dramatically, especially in their team play. A hastily arranged friendly with an Italian side saw the Chinese emerge 13-2 victors, helped immeasurably by their portly northern English goalkeeper. Unfortunately we never did get a chance to pit our skills against the other team staying at Teikyo College, the Patriots women’s team from George Mason University, Arizona.

The main problem with the project was Pepsi’s contribution, which hardly went further than providing some kit. Considering a Meridian TV crew came to the training ground twice, giving the Pepsi logos and banners ­plenty of exposure, it seemed particularly mean-spirited that the kids weren’t even given bottles of drink for breaks in training.

While Fan Zhiyi was “too busy” to grace the training camp that bore his name, we did get to see him play when Palace visited Rotherham on the first day of the season. Fan had a poor game, but he still stumped up free tickets for us and spent half an hour afterwards chatting with the kids,  posing for photos and signing autographs.

When the project ended, the nine students headed home, though two may return for trials at Nationwide League clubs. Apparently there are moves to found an all-year round football school for Chinese teen­agers, as a partnership between Fan, Pepsi and the college. If there’s a job going, though, I think I’ll pass. It’s not that I think it’s a sweatshop or anything. It’s just Slough.

From WSC 177 November 2001. What was happening this month

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