Managing in China during the coronavirus: 'No-one tells you what to do when a pandemic hits’
Nantong boss Gary White says: 'I’ve lived through hurricanes, earthquakes, you name it. But this is on a completely different level'
Gary White is no stranger to sport in uncharted territory.
After all, the Southampton-born manager includes some of football’s most far flung destinations on his CV.
But even the former British Virgin Islands and Guam manager admits that nothing had prepared him for a Chinese lockdown that effectively brought the most populous nation on Earth to a standstill.
White took over Nantong Zhiyun in August of last year and led them to safety in the final match of the Chinese First Division season, inspiring his side to a last ditch victory over Yaya Toure’s Qingdao Huanghai.
That win – secured with an injury-time winner – saw White’s side return as heroes to Nantong, with local fans waiting for the Englishman at the airport to shower him with flowers.
The stage was set for Nantong to build on that this season but instead White has spent the majority of 2020 holed up in an apartment in Shanghai with his Chinese wife and their young son.
It’s not quite the preparation he had in mind.
“It has obviously been very, very strange,” he says. “When you’re doing your coaching badges no-one turns round and says ‘and by the way, this is what you do when a pandemic hits’. Nothing can prepare you for this.
“I’ve lived through hurricanes in the Bahamas, earthquakes in Japan, you name it. But this is on a completely different level.”
Life is gradually returning to something approaching normality in China, with the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic now focused in Europe and the USA.
Chinese Super League clubs returned to training on March 22 but the positive test returned by Marouane Fellaini last week may see the start date of the season – originally mooted as mid-April – pushed back further.
The uncertainty is reflected elsewhere in Asia. Japan is one of the few countries globally to put a date on the return of football, with clubs there preparing to return to action on May 9.
For White, though, getting back on the training pitch is just one small step towards normality returning.
“A lot of our overseas players are still waiting to come back to China,” he says. “Some won’t be able to leave their own countries at the moment, the world has pretty much ground to a complete standstill.
“My backroom staff left the country when everything started kicking off, but I decided that I would stay.
"My wife is Chinese and we have a young son. If there has been any bonus to this it’s that I’ve got to spend so much time with him in the past few months. His English has improved massively.
“Spending time with your family is something you don’t get to do that often as a football manager, you’re usually so busy travelling, particularly in China.”
Travelling, of course, is something that very few people anywhere in the world are doing at the moment and while Nantong’s players begin the process of starting what effectively amounts to a second pre-season, White admits that the sport is now in a very different place to the one it occupied at the start of the year.
“A lot has changed,” says White. “We played a pre-season match on January 22 and then effectively went into lockdown almost immediately after.
“I’ve tried to keep in touch with my players as much as I can. In a situation like this it’s all about communication and making sure that your players and staff are safe.
"They’ve had training plans mapped out for them and exercises they can do in their apartments. But there’s obviously no substitute for playing matches and getting that sharpness.
“It will take a long time for things to get back to normal here. Pre-match handshakes, for example. Handshakes have been off the table for so long that they might disappear completely.
"You might also have players thinking twice about flying into tackles and being in close contact with others on the pitch. All the things that have kept people safe for the past three months are suddenly going to have to go out of the window.”
The process that China is now going through is the same one that English football and leagues across Europe will have to adapt to once the crisis abates.
Managers will doubtless relish the opportunity of speaking to their charges on the training ground rather than through messaging apps. The players, meanwhile, will be looking forward to the prospect of having the ball at the feet on wide open spaces instead of training at home.
It’s hard to know the true impact that the pandemic has had until life gradually begins to return to normal. In China it's already clear that the impact has been significant.
The country’s footballers will now hope to bring back a semblance of normality.
Updated: April 9, 2020 01:30 PM