Walker with girlfriend Samantha Thurman and their son, Jaxson, in Spain earlier this year. Photo: Red Door News, Hong Kong

Goal oriented

Former England footballer Ian Walker, one of a number of international players to join big-spending Chinese Super League club Shanghai Shenhua, talks to Simon Parry about tackling life in the East

It was the day he found himself munching on a frog in the training ground canteen that former Tottenham Hotspur and England goalkeeper Ian Walker realised how shockingly different life with a Chinese football team might be.

"I didn't know what it was at first, so I had a bite," he says. "Then I asked, 'What's this?' and they said, 'Frog', and I said, 'Frog's legs?', and they said, 'No, whole frog.' I said, 'Right, I'm not having that.' I wasn't too pleased."

Of all the foreign stars to sign for big-spending Shanghai Shenhua, Walker - who left behind a sun lounger in Spain's Costa del Sol to become the team's goalkeeping coach in April - is arguably the most unlikely. A torchbearer for Britain's 1990s "lad culture", the 40-year-old Essex native had a glittering 13-year playing career, married a Page Three model (those who bare their breasts in British tabloid ), drove a 7-Series BMW and lived in a £2.5 million (HK$30 million) mock-Tudor mansion in Cobham, Surrey.

Seemingly determined to live out every cliché of the working-class footballer millionaire, he was once linked to a television soap star then left his wife and daughter for another attractive young blonde, Samantha Thurman, who he met on a trip to Las Vegas.

So, after a roller-coaster life of glamour in London, Miami, where Thurman is from, and, most recently, Estepona in Spain, it is hardly surprising that Walker is suffering a touch of culture shock after moving to China - especially when it comes to sustenance.

"The worst thing is the food," he grimaces. "I haven't been served any dog yet. They tell me they don't do that anymore - but I did have a very suspicious burger once. One day, I was having a stroll around one of the shopping centres and I was hungry so I went into a restaurant for lunch. The special was chicken soup, and it was basically a chicken with its head sticking out of a pan of clear soup. It wasn't even cut up. It was just sitting there, looking up at me."

A few months after he was invited to take up the job by Shanghai Shenhua striker and former Bolton Wanderers teammate Nicolas Anelka, Walker's easy-going good humour has been tested by aspects of Chinese living other than the curious cuisine.

"There's the heat and the humidity, which I found tough at first. And it's dangerous crossing the road. Forget zebra crossings; that's not an option here. Just try to dodge the cars. It's very noisy, too, because everyone beeps their horn every five seconds.

"The other thing that's hard to get used to is people spitting in the street. A few times I've heard someone hoiking something from the back of their throat. Sometimes it's so loud that you hear it and you can't work out where the person who's doing it is."

Nevertheless, his post in Shanghai - at one of the richest clubs in the mainland - is a step back into the limelight for Walker, whose last job, as manager of English non-league side Bishop's Stortford, ended with the sack after nine months.

After the disappointment of his first foray into management at the end of last year, Walker left England with Thurman and their four-year-old son, Jaxson, to live in a rented villa in Estepona - until China came calling.

"Nico [Anelka] just e-mailed me and said there might be something coming up and I didn't think much of it," he says. "Then he sent me another e-mail and told me, 'You need to be here by Friday.' And this was on a Tuesday.

"It was somewhere different and somewhere I could get back into being involved with football again. It's a different culture, a different country and a different way of life, so I thought, 'I'll go for it. Why not?'

"I drove the six hours to Madrid and got a visa overnight, then drove back, packed and got on a plane the next day. I got to Shanghai in time to see a game on the Friday night and then I started work on Monday."

It wasn't Walker's first visit to China - although it would be understandable if his memories of his first visit to the country are hazy. Walker came with the England squad on a Far East tour ahead of the Euro 1996 tournament, during which Paul Gascoigne and teammates famously had drinks poured down their throats while seated in a dentist's chair in The Jump, a bar in Causeway Bay.

"I was the second one in the dentist's chair. It was absolutely crazy," he recalls with a boyish grin. "I was pretty much a newcomer to the squad and I got led astray that night. It wasn't exactly advisable to do that as part of the England squad. Afterwards, we were under big pressure to do something in the tournament. Luckily it went well and everyone got behind the team and we turned it around."

That notorious tour, during which England played against Hong Kong club side Golden (now known as Sunray Cave JC Sun Hei), also included a game in the Chinese capital.

"What I remember about Beijing is going around the supermarkets and seeing all the insects and monkey brains and stuff on sale," Walker says. "It was smoggy and dusty but what I remember mainly is a road with thousands of bikes. It's all changed now, of course. There are cars everywhere and you can get anything you want; there's even a Marks & Spencer around the corner from my apartment."

Kept out of the Euro 1996 tournament first team by Arsenal's David Seaman, Walker eventually saw his top flight career in England fade at Bolton, after 13 years and 300 appearances with Spurs. He spent 3½ years in Miami before a back injury ended his playing days.

Sixteen years after taking his turn in the dentist's chair, Walker watched England's Euro 2012 matches in June, with Putonghua TV commentary, alone in a rented 25,000 yuan-a-month (HK$30,000) high-rise apartment in Shanghai's trendy Xintiandi district, where neighbours include basketball star Yao Ming.

For a man reputed to love the high life, Walker's existence in the bustling, neon-lit city appears to be a surprisingly sedate and solitary one of quiet nights in. His lad-about-town image was something of an exaggeration, anyway, he suggests.

"I used to go out, but not that much," he says. "I'm quite happy to sit at home and watch TV. There's one sports channel luckily. Even though it's Chinese it has all the football and tennis and motor racing."

Walker admits he hasn't once cooked a meal in his Shanghai apartment. "It's just easier to order something in."

Most evenings after training, dinner comes from an expat-oriented service called Sherpa that takes online or telephone orders for meals from Western restaurants and brings them round for a 15-yuan delivery fee.

Walker gets around with the help of a text-message service that translates English addresses into Chinese to show to taxi drivers on a mobile phone display. "You press C for Chinese and the address comes up in Chinese," he explains.

Keeping in touch with friends in England (he is in contact with Teddy Sheringham and others from his playing days) turned out to be a costly experience.

"I was using my English phone at first and then I got the bill," he says. "It was ridiculous. So I had to get rid of that. Now I use Skype."

Walker misses daughter Sophie more than most. Her mother is Walker's ex-wife, Suzi, and she turned 14 in July.

"She hasn't said much one way or the other," he says. "She knows I've got a job out here and it's much further away. It's not ideal, obviously. I don't see as much of her as I'd like to."

At work he spends his time in the company of foreign colleagues from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, France and Serbia. He rarely sees anyone from home.

"I did see a couple of people out with England shirts the other night but they're the first ones I've noticed," he says.

The reward for his odd and isolated existence is a generous salary: Walker says he doesn't earn as much as Anelka but certainly gets more than he did as the manager of Bishop's Stortford "and it's tax free, of course".

Walker has also found himself back on the footballing radar, at least as far as agents are concerned.

"As soon as I came out I must have had about 10 agents call me," he says. "I hadn't heard from them in ages and all of a sudden they wanted to talk about sending players to China."

One of those who has followed Walker to the Shanghai club is Chelsea European Cup final hero Didier Drogba, a striker from Ivory Coast.

China's Super League appears to offer little in the way of job security, though. Managers and coaches change on an almost monthly basis and with Argentinian Sergio Batista appointed head coach of Shanghai Shenhua - taking over from Frenchman Jean Tigana, who had been in the job for only a few weeks - there has been speculation Anelka will leave the club.

"Three of the guys Nico brought in have left. That's the nature of it out here. There may be more changes. If they tell you that's it, then that's it," says Walker.

The club's huge, heavily guarded training ground, near Shanghai's international airport, has dormitories for youth players and the atmosphere of a factory complex. With summer temperatures approaching 40 degrees Celsius, training takes place in the evenings only.

A translator works with Walker as he puts the club's Chinese goalkeepers through their paces. With a limit of four first team foreign players, the club - struggling in the lower half of the Super League - is at a standard equivalent to League One, England's third tier, Walker reckons. However, with seemingly limitless amounts of money available to Shanghai Shenhua and other Chinese teams, Walker, Anelka, Tigana and Drogba may be among the first of many stars who have made their name playing for top European clubs to head to China. Guangzhou R&F's Nigerian international Yakubu, who played for several top-flight English clubs, is another. (We'll forget Gascoigne's ill-fated stint at Gansu Tianma, in 2003, and German Carsten Jancker's poor showing for Shanghai Shenhua in 2006.)

"Some [clubs] are backed by the government … There is money around and they're looking to improve. They are trying to get the top players and money doesn't seem to be an issue."

Walker was hoping to have his girlfriend and son installed in his Shanghai home at the time of this interview, after a complicated visa run via Madrid and Hong Kong. As he awaits their arrival, Walker admits his girlfriend is apprehensive at the prospect of life in China.

"Obviously she's got worries. She's been asking if there are other foreigners here, what there is to do, have they got this, have they got that, what about health care, what about schools, what about hairdressers - all that kind of stuff," he says.

"But once you get out here, everything's here somewhere. I've spoken to the other foreign players and their families and they were all a bit unsure at first but they love it now. My family should be fine."

After a thoughtful pause, he adds: "Although some of the food does take a bit of getting used to."


Red Door News


This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Goal oriented