Billy Brennan spreading the soccer gospel in China
Ever hear the one about the Kilkenny goalkeeper who took off the gloves, upped sticks and moved to China? You have now…
For Castlecomer’s Billy Brennan, the idea of a normal commute to work didn’t appeal to him. Instead, he took off on a 9,000km journey that saw him leave Ireland and go East - all the way to the Far East!
Once Brennan, a former Deen Celtic and Evergreen netminder who had spells on both sides of the border with UCD, Lisburn and Portadown, decided to quit the game and take up coaching, his first aim was to find a post. However, his destination, the city of Guiyang, was a little further removed than many might have anticipated.
“It’s a long way from home alright!” Brennan said with a laugh as he explained how Castlecomer was traded in for China and a life teaching football to a new generation of Asian fans.
“I lived in the North for five years (where he played with Lisburn Distillery and Portadown) but two years ago I got involved with fellow Kilkennyman Stephen Murray and his Pass4Soccer programme which brings young players to America on college scholarships.
“Working with him I started visiting schools in the North and taking PE classes. During that time I was in the process of doing my UEFA coaching badges. I applied for a job with the IFA (Northern Ireland’s footballing body) and while I felt I had all the criteria I didn’t get to the final stage of the selection process.
“The feedback I got led me to believe I had to look abroad to do what I wanted to do,” he said. “To work in football full-time in Ireland is very difficult, even tougher in an academy format in England, so I started to look towards the Middle East and Asia. I had a few offers from both so, after weighing things up, I decided China was the best package for me.”
Moving to Northern Ireland for footballing work is one thing. China, a completely different matter.
“It was a long way to go,” he said. “When I first told my mother (Billy is son of Tom and Mags Brennan, Massford) she just looked at me as if to say ‘you’re not going there!’ but she warmed to the idea.
“A lot of people have a perception of China but since coming here I haven’t seen any trouble.”
Located in South West China, Guiyang is the capital city of the Guizhou region. It’s size - the population is over the 4.3 million mark - means life in a bustling community, but it’s not as easy as it sounds.
“It’s easy to go to some of the cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong because plenty of people speak English but the area I’m in is only hitting the economic boom so up to seven or eight years ago there would only have been a few foreigners here,” he said.
“I remember the first five days I was here I didn’t see a single person who wasn’t Chinese,” he recalled. “I was staying in a hotel here so I was walking around and remember thinking that I hadn’t seen another foreigner at all!
“Even now that number is quite small,” he continued. “The city has a population over the 4 million mark and there’s only something like 4 to 500 ex-pats. The area is quite rural but it’s starting to take off in both business and sporting terms, so it was a good time to come to this region.”
Quick to throw himself into Chinese life, Brennan is currently learning Mandarin, but has found a way around any potential communication problems.
“I don’t know if my Chinese has improved, but my pointing skills have!” he said with a laugh. “I’d be great at a game of charades, but it was a big culture shock when I came here first.
“I’m learning Mandarin at the minute, but each province has its own dialect so it’s like a totally different language.
“Now the government is trying to make all the signs universal, while schoolchildren are taught in Mandarin. Each word has four tones so, depending on the tone you use, it could have four different meanings.”
It’s a good job then that football is the universal language. Even for the coach, there has been plenty to take in.
“Being in a different culture has helped me to learn as a coach,” he said. “Some kids learn vocally while for others it’s a visual process.
“A lot of the kids I teach look to me to show them drills first and then follow it using cues. I’ve learned to simplify things to make it easier, not to overload kids with information.
“Now I coach more through demonstrations and examples, which has been a good experience.”
Brennan is responsible for football development in Guiyang, and has been approached to work with the city’s academy team, who are a feeder side for the Guizhou professional team. With the Chinese Super League drawing attention from all over the world, it’s no surprise to learn the country has been bitten by the football bug, but the country harbours serious ambitions for the future.
“There are 1.6 billion Chinese people,” he said. “When they apply themselves to something they’re usually a success at it.
“There’s such an emphasis on education and wanting to do well that some of the kids here have daily schedules full of times and dates of their next lesson in English, French, piano lessons and different sports.
“When they come to play football I try to make it as fun as possible for them as it’s a release from their hectic schedules - some of the schools even have football exams!”
That’s where Brennan’s role differs from others. His aims are to help people develop, while thinking for themselves.
“The kids are so used to being told what to do. I believe the coaching should be about developing critical thinking and decision making from the individual - in doing that the kids feel they have more of an input into their lessons and freedom to play the game.”
Taking the role has been great for Brennan, who is enjoying life in China.
“It’s been great over here,” he said. “It’s tough leaving your family - that wasn’t an easy decision but I had to look at making a future for myself.
“I stopped playing at a relatively young age for a goalkeeper but I felt there was something else I wanted to do. I started looking at the coaching badges and thinking about the game differently.
“Maybe that came from being a goalkeeper,” he offered. “I remember saying to someone once that I never enjoyed any match I played in because I was on edge. You might enjoy moments, like if you made a good save or if your team scored a goal, but then you had to switch back on.
“I could never relax fully,” he said. “Even if your team was 3-0 up you wanted to keep the clean sheet, while if you were 1-0 down you had to stay sharp because there was always a chance you nick something out of the game.”
Playing in goal gave Brennan a different perspective on the game and was a key route to his coaching role.
“Given our positioning goalkeepers have a different view on the game,” he said. “I could always see the other 21 players and when you’re watching the game you can see patterns emerging. You can spot where moves come from. Communication was always a strong thing with me when I played, so that helped me in terms of coaching.”
And like all coaches, his working week is quite busy.
“I’m in the office Monday, off Tuesday and Wednesday, but from Thursday to Sunday it could be all go coaching,” he said.
“You could have between five and 60 kids at coaching sessions. Numbers were light at the start as we were only introducing the course but they have steadily grown since.”
While the move has been tough in terms of leaving family behind, he reckons the decision to go was positive.
“You could never regret coming here,” he said. “The big regret would be if you didn’t. Coming to China was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down.”
And who knows, if China realise their long-term goal it could turn out that a Kilkennyman is responsible for helping train a future World Cup winner.
“Football will be part of the national curriculum here quite soon,” Brennan said. “The aim is to host a World Cup here by 2030 and to have a Chinese team win the competition so they’re putting the plans in place. Looking at their history and how they set about things you couldn’t back against them achieving their goals.”
Adapting to life in China meant Billy has had to take a different look at things.
“People here don’t queue - it’s like a gathering of people where it’s ‘first come, first served’ so you have to get used to people jumping in front of you,” he said.
“That might be seen as rude in Ireland, but when you consider they come from an area of thousands of people so they know they have to get there first, whether it’s for a bus, subway or even their food order, or they’ll have to go without.
“Another thing is when the sun is out you see more umbrellas than when it’s raining,” he added.
“In the West we all want a tan - the browner the better. In China, the paler you are gives the perception is that you’re wealthier than others as you’ve been working in offices and the like.”
Despite that, he has nothing but good things to say about the people, who have made his trip an enjoyable one.
“They’re very welcoming and warm to foreigners,” he said. “Even though they might not speak English they always want to help people.”
And being from Ireland has its attractions too!
“Random people might ask you for a picture - in some of the schools the people might have never seen a foreigner before,” he said. “Some people don’t have TVs and have never seen a foreigner before!”
The expat community is quite small, but typically you can never go too far without meeting someone from home!
“Philip Bryan, who hails from Callan, is teaching in the region,” Brennan said. “I would meet him quite regularly, so it’s great to have someone from home to talk to.”