Zhang Enhua

No saviour arrived for Grimsby last season but Jack Johnson remembers the brief appearance of a goal-scoring international defender a decade ago

Ten years ago Division One strugglers Grimsby Town were in the midst of a defensive crisis. The club's only senior centre-backs – Peter Handyside, Richard Smith and Paul Raven – were all spending more time on the treatment table than the training ground, so Grimsby boss Lennie Lawrence decided to make a few phonecalls. The fans expected a rookie Premier League reserve or two; what they didn’t expect was a Chinese international.

In December 2000, Zhang Enhua signed for the Mariners on a three-month loan deal. Quite how the player’s agent managed to sell Grimsby to the five-time Jia-A League champion no one can be sure. I doubt the National Fishing Heritage Centre would have swung it. Still, after rushing through mounds of paperwork, Zhang made his Mariners debut in an impressive 2-0 win at home to Norwich City (it was Town’s first win in nine games).

In the absence of any fit centre-halves, Zhang’s partner that game was Paul Groves. The 34-year-old midfielder slotted into the back four effortlessly. For the first time that season the club appeared to have solved their defensive problem. Over the next few weeks, inspired performances from both Zhang and Groves helped Town to unexpected victories over Preston and Portsmouth. Grimsby appeared to be turning the corner.

A couple of weeks later, Stan Ternent’s Burnley came to Blundell Park with the Mariners still floating precariously above the drop zone. Town managed to nick it 1-0, with Zhang scoring his first goal in English football after bounding in at the far post to nod home a fantastic corner from Menno Willems. His energetic goal celebration in front of the Pontoon Stand that day caught the attention of ITV producers. For the next few months the footage of him rejoicing was used in the opening credits of popular Yorkshire TV programme Goals on Sunday.

Three days later, Zhang again grabbed the headlines when another powerful header earned Grimsby a surprise point away at promotion-chasing Bolton. Until then his spell on Humberside had been a relatively low-key affair. No one bar the people that read the local paper knew who Zhang Enhua was. Now the whole of the division was talking about the Chinese international who kept scoring for Grimsby Town.

Zhang made his debut for his hometown club Dalian Wanda as a 20-year-old during the 1994 season. By the late 1990s the defender had become a regular in the national team as well as a key figure in the Dalian Wanda side that dominated the Chinese league with three successive titles in 1996, 1997 and 1998. If it weren’t for prolific striker Hao Haidong – the so-called “Chinese Alan Shearer” – he would have probably been the nation’s favourite player too.

After China narrowly missed out on a place at the World Cup in France following defeats to Iran and Qatar, Zhang was invited to England in the summer of 1998 with a view to signing for a Premier League team. While the whole world admired Michael Owen’s blistering pace, Denis Bergkamp’s touch and Zinedine Zidane’s bald patch, Zhang and his China team-mate Fan Zhiyi had a trial with Southampton (unfortunately for the Chinese pair, Dave Jones wasn’t that impressed).

Although neither managed to win a contract with the Saints, Fan somehow caught the eye of Terry Venables and before his time in England was up he had signed for Crystal Palace. It seemed as though Zhang had missed his chance to play in England, so he went back to Dalian, won a couple more league titles and finished off the DIY jobs he had promised Mrs Zhang.

A little more than two years later, after responding to Lennie Lawrence’s Grimsby SOS call, the defender was back on English soil proving Jones and the rest of the Southampton coaching staff wrong. Unfortunately for Grimsby, Zhang’s loan deal expired a few weeks short of the end of the season and he returned to China. A permanent deal was discussed but agreement was always unlikely as the defender was on a reported £10,000 a week during his spell – twice as much as any other player at the club.

However, despite being without the new fans’ favourite, Grimsby managed to defy the odds and avoid relegation that year with four wins in their last seven games. All season the pundits had the club as favourites to go down.

Although, in retrospect, Zhang Enhua’s 14-week stint with Grimsby Town may not appear to be one of the highlights of his decorated career, his time on Humberside will never be forgotten. During his spell playing for the Mariners his first child, Gary Zhang, was born in the Diana Princess of Wales Hospital in Grimsby, making Gary an honorary Grimbarian. But given the obvious geographical restrictions, I doubt he makes it to Blundell Park too often.

From WSC 284 November 2010