Former Hibs keeper rubbing shoulders with legends in China

McNeil resisted the urge to ask Argentinian star Carlos Tevez for a selfie
McNeil resisted the urge to ask Argentinian star Carlos Tevez for a selfie
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In one dug-out sat Serbian legend Dragan Stojkovic and in the other former Uruguay midfielder Gus Poyet.

And watching on from the stand behind them was Marcello Lippi, who steered Italy to World Cup glory in 2006.

Andy McNeil is goalkeeping coach with Super League side Guangzhou R&F

Andy McNeil is goalkeeping coach with Super League side Guangzhou R&F

Not, as you might think, the backdrop for a Champions League final but an every day sight in China where many of football’s top names from around the globe now play, tempted by the riches on offer in the Far East.

It’s difficult, as former Hibs player Andy McNeil admitted, not to have your head turned. However, as a goalkeeping coach with Super League side Guangzhou R&F, he’s found himself coming face-to-face with such superstars of the game on an almost weekly basis.

As a football fan, he’s also had to resist the temptation to ask for a “selfie” with Argentinian ace Carlos Tevez.

“It’s amazing the sort of players who are here,” McNeil told the Evening News.

“I was walking down the track before our game against Shanghai Shenhua and there was Tevez sitting there. I did think about it but, with me wearing my club tracksuit, I didn’t think it would be the best thing to ask for a selfie.

“But it’s just something else to see the likes of him, Pato, Ricardo Carvalho and so on. There’s all these guys here but there are also good players from places like Japan and South Korea who we’ve never heard of.”

McNeil who won the CIS Insurance Cup with Hibs ten years ago, surprised everyone at the start of the year when he turned his back on Scottish football, cutting short his contract with Morton to head for China.

There may have been a little apprehension as he did so but any doubts he may initially have harboured have gone as he’s settled down as reserve team goalkeeping coach at a club currently sitting fourth in the Chinese Super League but 11 points behnd the leaders, their city rivals Guangzhou Evergrande, winners of the title in each of the past six seasons.

The 30-year-old said: “We’ve had an excellent start. We are one of the smaller clubs in the league in terms of budget but we’ve had a few players in the Chinese national squad, some for the first time.

“Evergrande have players such as the Brazilian midfielder Paulinho and Colombian striker Jackson Martinez while their manager is big Felipe Scolari and their players make up a fair proportion of the national side.

“But we went there and drew 2-2, only conceding the equaliser in the 94th minute. And when you consider the club was on the verge of being relegated two years ago when Stojkovic was brought in with just six weeks to go to turn things around, then we’re doing not too badly.”

In a city of 13 million people, you might expect derby day emotions to run high but, McNeil admitted, he was pleasantly surprised by the experience.

He said: “Football isn’t the biggest sport in China but it was still a sell-out, some 40,000 with flags, drums and very well organised chanting.

“It was very passionate, us in blue and them in red, but it was a friendly rivalry. There wasn’t the animosity you’d expect at a derby back home, no violence or things being thrown at the players or anything like that. It’s probably down to the Chinese culture, but it was a great experience.”

Although he began his career as a youth player with Southampton where the likes of Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and Adam Lallana were team-mates and has played at a number of clubs in Scotland in addition to a year in New Zealand, McNeil admitted he’s had his eyes opened by the way Stojkovic and his staff go about their work.

He said: “Dragan has two other Serbian coaches, who have a different way of doing things. I’m the only British person here, the first-team goalkeeping coach is Chinese, we have a Japanese physical coach, and a couple of Dutch physios. It’s all been very educational, at first standing back to see what was going on as I found my feet.

“The reserve team train first each day with the first team following about 45 minutes later. Dragan is called ‘Mr’ by the players, not gaffer or boss, but he has been great with me. I’ve had a lot of questions to ask as much of it has been different to anything I have seen or experienced before but he’s been more than happy to explain everything to me.

“Things are structured very differently. In Scotland, if you are playing on a Saturday or Sunday you train Monday, Tuesday, have Wednesday off, and then train Thursday and Friday. Here, if the game is on a Saturday the players have the Monday off and train the rest of the week with the reserve team playing on the Sunday when those first-team players who haven’t played will turn out for us.

“If the first team are playing away on a Saturday, they’ll usually leave on the Friday morning. We’ll travel the next day, play on the Sunday and we’ll all get the same flight back.

“It’s pretty full-on but the ethic is that you are here to work.”

McNeil is living in club accommodation close to the training ground, revealing his prefered mode of transport is either walking or on his bicycle as driving in Guangzhou, something he has yet to do, is daunting.

He said: “The training ground is handy, only a ten-minute walk and some of the other foreign guys also stay there. It’s easy to get into the local town and the city centre is thirty minutes away.

“The metro is good but, as you can imagine in a city this big, it’s very busy. The roads are manic, a free-for-all. I’ve been in taxis or on a coach trying to cross three lines of traffic to turn right so it would be pretty traumatic trying to navigate my way around.”

McNeil has certainly made an impression at his new outfit, having already asked to step up to become goalkeeping coach of their satellite club who play in the Hong Kong League.

But, astonishingly, he won’t have to up sticks as Hong Kong R&F will be based in Guangzhou and only travel to play their away games.

He said: “The club are investing quite heavily in the Hong Kong operation as they were nearly relegated last season. Our third-choice goalkeeper will be playing for them to get experience which should be good for his development and mine.

“It’s not that big a deal as I’ll be staying exactly where I am but, while the Chinese League runs March to November, the Hong Kong League is more like a British timetable, August to May.

“I was expecting to come home in mid-November but now I’ll probably not get back until January.”

Although he spent the latest international break in China, McNeil did head back to Edinburgh in March, meeting up with some of his team-mates from that 2007 CIS Cup-winning team such as Ivan Sproule, Rob Jones, Steven Whittaker, David Murphy and Merouane Zemmama.

He said: “You tend to initially keep in touch but, as time goes on and they move two or three times, you lose contact so it was good to catch up and find out what they are doing with themselves.”

At that, McNeil went off to slap on a bit more sun lotion, revealing: “It was 38°C the other day and my fair Scottish skin doesn’t take too well to it.”