Many football fans will remember the notoriously introduced ‘Silver goal’ rule at the European Championships in 2000, as well as the ’35-yard Shootout’ which was predominately used in the United States. However, in Sheffield these two failed footballing experiments aren’t even included in the conversation, compared to the time Sheffield United Football Club invested in Chinese outfit Chengdu Tiancheng.
In January 2006, Chengdu Tiancheng became the first foreign-owned Chinese club ever, with Sheffield United chairman Kevin McCabe investing into the club which at the time was only 10 years old.
The club was then renamed to ‘Chengdu Blades’ to reflect a clear partnership with the South Yorkshire based club. With, the Chengdu Sports Centre also becoming the home to the familiar red and white stripes and crossed swords logo.
McCabe originally believed this investment would secure rewards in the future, due to the rise of Chinese culture in the city of Sheffield, and the huge number of Chinese students wishing to study in the city. He began to build an audience for the Chinese outfit immediately, welcoming the Chengdu Blades for a talk at the University of Sheffield, and a parade around the city. In conjunction, the club store stocked endless amounts of the Chinese clubs’ shirts and merchandise which proved surprisingly popular.
In addition, the initial idea of the partnership was to extend the Sheffield United brand following their promotion to the English Premier League, as well as attempting to widen the club’s scouting system to Asia. McCabe in the long-haul wanted to the Chinese club to find players, which could be brought to the UK, and coached in the Sheffield Academy leading to an eventual first team call-up.
Legends of Chinese football, and former Sheffield United talents; Sun Jihai, and Li Tie were both transferred to play for the Sichuan side, who were also furnished with former Derby and Middlesbrough midfielder, Don O’Riordan as their Director of Football.
In an exclusive interview, O’Riordan talked about his relationship with Chairman McCabe and what attracted him to China, by stating: “McCabe is a great businessman, with a great long-term plan to connect Sheffield United all over the globe. I thought the Chengdu branch was a fantastic opportunity for myself, and a great way of expanding what was already a fantastic British football club.”
During O’Riordan’s time in China, the Blades were very successful, gaining promotion back to the Chinese Super League just two seasons after the buyout from McCabe. Drawing their concluding fixture of the campaign 0-0 against third placed Jiangsu Shuntian to ensure a promotion party.
A further three years of success in the CSL, saw them finish as high as seventh in the league. To add to this, 15 trainees from the Chinese outfit went on to play for the first team, or join the UK sides’ academy, showing a favourable outcome from increasing the club’s scouting network.
Unfortunately, disaster struck the Chinese Blades, as the club was relegated to the Chinese League One in 2009, for allegations of match-fixing in the lower divisions a few seasons prior which was proven to be correct. Chengdu’s President Xu Hongtao had previously bribed Qingboa’s manager Liu Hongwei 300 thousand yuan, and a fake invoice of 200 thousand yuan, for a one-month rental of the club’s training centre. Qingboa in fixture against Chengdu strangely fielded a second-string team, which led to them losing 2-0 to the Blades, which was never investigated until years later. When several clubs reported Hongtao for his corruption and constant attempt at commercial bribery.
The corruption and subsequent relegation were a deal-breaker for McCabe and Sheffield United, as the now Galway United Ladies manager O’Riordan explained: “From what i’m aware, the Club wasn’t generating that much profit for United, and with the club’s struggles in the Championship that same year, McCabe was already prepared to drop his investment.”
“I’m not sure whether the attitude surrounding Chinese football has changed, but certainly from my time there, the direction of the Chinese League was heading in the wrong way. There was an evident barrier between me, the players, and the those above me, if the Chinese owners were to listen to us foreigners and use our knowledge and experience of the game, i’m sure Chinese football would have improved domestically and internationally a lot sooner.”
Additionally, when asked what he thought specifically went wrong with the Chengdu franchise, he responded: “Me and McCabe had a great relationship, and despite my lack of experience coaching, he knew I had a good knowledge of the business side of football.”
“The affiliation with Sheffield United was never the issue, if anything that only gave them more power over the rest of the division. There’s a serious issue with how clubs over in China are ran, and I think it’s still there today. Money will never be an issue for most of China’s top sides, but a lot of those club’s need to strategize how to use their money efficiently.”
Conclusively, following the loss of investment from the Sheffield club, Chengdu experienced some financial difficulties and struggled to maintain any sort of competitive form. This resulted in the club dissolving in 2015, due to insufficient funding and a lack of interest for further investment as a result of their history of corruption, proving how Kevin McCabe’s investment into Chinese football may be one of the worst failed experiments in the history of the game.