Andy McNeil knows he faces more than a few challenges as he begins his new life this week in China – the language and an entirely different culture being the more obvious obstacles.
But, the former Hibs goalkeeper today revealed, there’s one skill he’s determined to master in the two years he will spend in the Chinese Super League with Guangzhou R&F – how to use chopsticks. “I’m absolutely useless with them,” confessed the 29-year-old. “I just can’t seem to use them at all.”
Becoming adept with the traditional Chinese eating utensils may ultimately prove to be no more than something to show off to his mates when he eventually returns to Edinburgh but, joking apart, it is a measure of how determined the 29-year-old is to immerse himself into life in what, despite having a population of 13 million, is China’s third largest city.
Obviously, the main focus during his two years in the Far East will be on the training ground as reserve goalkeeping coach, the Saltire against the boy from Leith’s name in the club’s list of players and staff – headed by former Croatian star Dragan Stojkovic – standing out against the predominantly native squad.
McNeil, however, insists that, as important as his primary task might be, absorbing the entire experience this surprise opportunity has given him is something to be embraced. At a time when world-famous names such as Carlos Tevez, Oscar and John Obi Mikel have grabbed contracts with eye-watering weekly salaries running well into six-figures in the super-rich Chinese league, seeing McNeil plucked from the Scottish Championship where he was playing with Morton has caused something of a stir.
But, he claimed that’s purely on the back of such figures moving to the same country, revealing with tongue firmly in cheek, that he’s only on the “basic” wage of £100,000 a week. The money is, he admitted, “decent” but, what he regards was a “life-changing” opportunity was just too good to miss even although he was as surprised as anyone to get the chance.
Although the move became public only a few days before he flew out, McNeil disclosed that it was something which had been under discussion for some time.
He said: “It arose around the time Morton were in the League Cup semi-final against Aberdeen and I was getting a bit of a run in the team. Things were going alright playing wise but a representative of Guangzhou R&F had got in touch with Chris Ewing – who runs Edusport Academy where I was doing some coaching – looking for someone to work with their goalkeepers.
“He called me and said I should listen to them. Had it been anyone but Chris I’d have thought it was a wind-up.
“It came right out of the blue, not something I was looking for but, although you are told you should play for as long as possible, I just felt it was the sort of opportunity that would never come round again. It’ll change my life. It’s a different country, a different culture working in a new league to me but it is going to be an amazing experience and one I couild not turn down.”
Having flown into south-east China – Guangzhou is only an hour by train from Hong Kong – McNeil is initially staying in the accommodation provided at the club’s training ground with a translator on hand.
However, he said: “The interpreter will be around, I’d imagine, for training but he or she isn’t going to be with me every minute of the day.
“There are accommodation facilities on site at the training ground but I’d like to think that would be short-term. Going about my daily business, I’ll have to learn the language and being able to come back to Edinburgh able to speak Cantonese would be pretty cool.
“There’s only a handful of players and coaches at the club who aren’t Chinese. I’ll be the only British person but there is one Swedish player [international midfielder Gustav Svensson] so hopefully, like the majority of people from that country, he’ll speak English.
“But I know from having been in dressing-rooms with foreign players – we had Abdessalam Benjelloun and Merouane Zemmama during my time at Hibs for example – how much the local guys appreciate someone from elsewhere at least making the effort to learn the language and to adapt to their way of life.”
McNeil admitted he left Edinburgh not knowing too much about his new club but added: “I’ve spoken to people there and it sounds like a well-run club. They have good facilities, were fairly successful in recent years but haven’t done so well as previously. Dragan Stojkovic is the new manager and, back in the day, he was a world-class player so that was part of the appeal – being involved, working with and learning from some top-class coaches.”
McNeil revealed the lack of top-level coaching opportunities for goalkeepers was another factor in his decision as he headed out for the start of pre-season training in what has become something of a much-travelled career which began as a teenager at Southampton where he could name Gareth Bale, Adam Lallana and Theo Walcott as team-mates in the Saints youth side of the time.
Since then, apart from winning the CIS Cup with Hibs, the former Leith Academy pupil has racked up appearances with seven other Scottish clubs as well as spending a year in New Zealand playing and coaching.
And, he insisted, travelling to the other side of the world held fewer worries than moving to the south coast of England as a 16-year-old.
He said: “I remember going down there with my mum and dad who stayed for a bit but then they left and you realise they are not going to be there to help you.
“You are in with other young lads you don’t know, working with men who don’t suffer fools. So, going from playing with Leith Athletic to being with guys earning tens of thousands of pounds there was a bit of a struggle with homesickness at times.
“But, obviously, I am better prepared now, older, more experienced. I’ve had more clubs than Tiger Woods, I’ve had a year in New Zealand.
“I try to push myself in different ways so I want to do my best to embrace everything about China, to get better as a coach and to develop as a person so I feel lucky football has allowed me this opportunity.”
McNeil is as grateful to Morton boss Jim Duffy for not standing in the way of his move, revealing: “He obviously wanted me to stay but also recognised it was a unique and pretty good opportunity.
“He said I should just do whatever I wanted to do. It’s not going to be easy, but I’m really excited.”