Former England international goalkeeper, Ian Walker played for Tottenham Hotspur, Leicester City and Bolton Wanderers. In 2012 he moved to China to become goalkeeper coach of Shanghai Shenhua, before crossing the city divide to join Shanghai SIPG in 2014. In Walks the Walk he talks football and China. Follow him on Twitter: @IanWalks1
Last month my team Shanghai Dongya took on Beijing Guo’an at the Workers Stadium. While the result didn’t go our way – we went down 2-0 to the better side on the day – the place was packed, the atmosphere without doubt one of the best in the league. What most readers probably won’t be aware of is that I first visited the ground way back in May 1996, when I picked up my second cap for England.
I had earned my first just five days earlier back at Wembley Stadium in London, against Hungary. I’m from a footballing family, so as far back as I remember, I always wanted to play for England. I’d come through the youth team at Tottenham fairly quickly, and by that time had about four years of first team football under my belt, as well as playing at all age groups for England.
Playing at Wembley was a dream. It felt like the pinnacle, getting out on that hallowed turf. We had a big tournament coming up, on home soil with Euro 96, so obviously my focus was simply to do well and stay in the squad. I remember making a couple of clearances, but it all went by very quickly. I was just happy to get the first cap. Once you have one, it can never be taken away from you. I still dust it off it once in a while and take a look at it.
We then flew directly to China from London, and had no idea what to expect. I remember millions of bicycles. And it was grayish; it had that haze even back then. You can’t even compare Beijing to the city it is today. We visited the Great Wall, which was special. I still have a photo of Teddy Sheringham, Les Ferdinand and Alan Shearer. We also went out for a wander a couple of times. In the supermarket there were all sorts of weird animals: monkey brains, sheep heads, scorpions. Gross shit. But millions of people on bikes is my abiding memory.
Being before the Euros, the manager Terry Venables was experimenting – the average age of the starting lineup that day was just 24 years old. The pitch itself was poor, but the Workers Stadium was packed, 65,000 people. And, just as last month, the atmosphere was buzzing, which was great because, once again, we honestly didn’t know what to expect. I don’t think any of us had been to China before. It was like a different planet.
We didn’t have too many problems in the game. China weren’t very strong, they didn’t tax us too much, and we ran 3-0 victors. My roommate Darren Anderton – or Shaggy, as I called him (a Scooby-Doo reference) – had an outstanding game. Nicky Barmby scored two, sealing his place in the squad for the Euros, and Gazza got the other one. It was also the first time the Neville brothers played together for England. Overall an excellent experience for us young guys.
Phil Neville, at 19 and making his England debut, was the youngest player in a team with an average age of just 24
Looking back, it turns out Pierluigi Collina was the referee, something that didn’t register at the time; it was before he had become a big name. As with Hungary, it was quite nerve-wracking. To put it bluntly, you don’t want to fuck it up. I didn’t want to let a goal in and I didn’t want to make a mistake. End of story.
The position of goalkeeper is such an individual one, and it is my belief that you need to play four or five matches before you feel comfortable, like you do at club level. But when you play for England, you can play one game – even half a game – and if you make an error, everyone is on you.
To me that is harsh. You should get a run of games. Because international football is different from club football. First of all, the pressure is intense. You can feel it, you know it is there, and it is very real: being alongside the best players in the country for one, and then of course the press. You also don’t want to let your country down, your family down, your friends down, yourself down. You’re playing for your nation, representing England.
Another difference is that you’re up against the top players from the opposing country. Actually, a lot of the time in international football you don’t have a lot to do. But you have to have that concentration, because when it does come, it is better crossers of the ball, better strikers, better finishers. And as goalkeeper for England – and England especially, with our press – one blunder and you have everybody piling in on you: “He shouldn’t play again.”
As for returning to the Workers Stadium, I never would have conceived back in 1996 I’d be back here working 18 years on. Memories of a hazy, dusty gray country with millions of bikes; it is amazing how much has changed in what is a relatively short space of time. How does that make me feel? Like an old fart!
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