As Ryan McGowan gets ready to take his burgeoning football career to the Far East, one player who trod the rarely-beaten path from Edinburgh to China last year has backed the Hearts fans’ favourite to take the move in his stride and has urged
the Australian to savour the
experience for all its worth.
Upon being released by Hibs last January, Akpo Sodje, the much-travelled striker, ended up moving to Chinese Super League outfit Tianjin Teda at the start of the season last March. He spent four months there before returning to Britain with Preston North End, but the Nigeria-born Londoner was charmed enough by what China had to offer that he is convinced McGowan, 23, who has signed a lucrative two-year deal with Shandong Luneng Taishan, need not fret about venturing into the unknown.
“When the chance first came up to go to China, I had doubts in my mind because it was so far away from home and I didn’t know what to expect, but when I got there it was great,” said the 32-year-old, who signed for Scunthorpe last night until the end of season. “China is totally different to how it is viewed by many people outside the country. It’s a nice place to live. It’s an up-and-coming country, so it’s hard not to
“It’s very different to Britain, but it was a very good experience for me. I was keen to go over there and experience the culture and the style of football. It’s totally different to English or Scottish football – it’s much slower and more technical. The standard is not as good as English or Scottish football, but it’s well worth going for the experience of a different culture.
“Football is becoming bigger in China with each team allowed to bring in five players from abroad – there are quite a few Brazilians and Australians out there. There is obviously a lot of money in China at the moment, so if the clubs want a particular player they will spend whatever they need to get him. They’re really trying to make the product as attractive as possible.
“There is still a lot of work to be done in terms of organisation, but in the next few years, if they do the right things, Chinese football will only get bigger. There’s plenty money over there and when there’s money involved, it’s always likely that something will take off.”
Even though he had less than two seasons as a first-team regular at Tynecastle, McGowan ingratiated himself so well with fans and colleagues that he became one of Hearts’ biggest cult heroes of the modern era. Having crossed swords with the amiable Aussie briefly
during his time with Hibs, Sodje believes McGowan has the personality and attitude required to endear himself in a similar manner to the passionate Chinese supporters, as well as his new teammates.
“I found it quite easy to make friends,” he said. “At my club, the players all spoke at least a little bit of English, so that was helpful. I also learned a little bit of Chinese, which helped me on and off the field. The Chinese are very friendly people and really welcome you into their circle. As long as you go there and work hard and are not just there to pick up the money, then they’ll give you loads of support.
“The crowds are unbelievable out there. Every place I played, the crowd really supported their team and there was lots of singing and atmosphere. A lot of the teams play in stadiums that were built for the Olympics in Beijing [in 2008] and most of the teams fill their stadiums. Ryan should be expecting to play in front of crowds of well over 20,000 almost every week and sometimes even over 30,000 when he plays against the biggest teams.”
And if Sodje’s experience is anything to go by, McGowan is set to have almost every aspect of his life taken care of by his new employers. “The club sorted out everything for me,” recalls Sodje. “They pay your bills and your accommodation and also pay for your transportation to training and everything else like that. You’re well looked after, put it that way. There are so many things to do in China, but it depends on how much spare time you have between training, playing games and travelling.
“Because China is so big, you are travelling by plane to every single away game. Flying becomes as regular as taking a cab over there. He’ll also have lots of rest time in between training and games, though. The training facilities at my club were very good because they were built for the Olympics as well. It’s a very professional set-up out there. The only negative was the political side of things. As long as you use the right agents and the contract has been signed properly, then I’d recommend China to anybody.”
That last part hinted at a slightly acrimonious end to his spell in China, although Sodje was reluctant to say anything negative about a place that, in the main, clearly provided him with a positive life experience. It also afforded him the chance to chew the fat with Frenchman Nicolas Anelka, who, along with his former Chelsea strike partner Didier Drogba, has been one of the main poster boys for Chinese football.
“My best memory of playing in China was probably playing against Shanghai Shenhua when I came up against Anelka,” he recalls. “He was a really lovely guy. We had a conversation after the game because we had both played in England and he gave me some advice about being in China. I also enjoyed the derby against Beijing Guoan.”
Sodje played a small part in helping Tianjin Teda finish mid-table last year, three places above McGowan’s new club. From the knowledge he gathered of Luneng, he expects the Adelaide-born defender to be one of their better players.
“Luneng are a good side and a big club although they’re probably not one of the biggest in China,” he says. “I believe Ryan will be one of the top players in his team. There are lots of young Chinese players in
the league, so, as one of the foreigners, Ryan will have a big role to play over there because his team will be expecting a lot of him.
“I wish him all the best. As long as he is enjoying his football it will be a good experience for him. I’d recommend a move to China for anybody who wants the experience of a different culture and to do well financially. It’s far away from home and you do miss your family and friends but it’s something I definitely enjoyed and I’m sure Ryan will be happy he made the decision to go over there. I know he will do well in China.”
One player who didn’t do so well in China was Sodje’s old Hibs teammate, Derek Riordan. The Edinburgh-born hitman returned home early from a disastrous spell with Shaanxi Chan-Ba in 2011, pinpointing the food on offer as one of the worst aspect of his regrettable stint in the Far East. Sodje, by contrast, had no issue with the culinary offerings where he was based. “Certainly where I was, there was a wide range of food – you weren’t restricted to just Chinese food at all,” he said. “There was European food, English food, anything you wanted – even a Pizza Hut if you wanted that. If I had one word of warning about the food for Ryan, it would be that he should know the difference between chicken and frog because they both taste the same and a frog is just as likely to appear in your dish as a chicken.”