Following the bitter disappointment of missing out on promotion last season, we had a lot to attune for this year. The board was disappointed that we did not go on to win the league as they thought we would, and after a meeting, I convinced them that next year would be our year. A big ask on the face of it.
We were going to lose 12 first-team players, including our three Spaniards, meaning quality had to come and fast. Anyone knows that China is not filled with good talent, and with league rules restricting my use of foreign imports, I was going to be up against it from the off.
However, that did not stop me from organising a total of 15 signings during January and February.
An array of squad options and starters arrived, and finally, we had something about the team. Huang Wei would come in to steady the defence; Xie Longfei & Fan Xiaodong would help with league rules and give us an option off the wings; Tong Lei & Sun Fabo gives us that edge going forward from the fullback positions; Xu Hui is the one I am most excited about playing behind the striker and has age on his side; Steve Robbins arrives as our sole foreigner and will enforce the midfield and finally, Liu Xiadong arrives with the view to become a first-choice goalkeeper. He cost us £120K and that was a price tag I couldn’t turn down given the Chinese goalkeeper tax.
The remaining signings were more for adding numbers to the squad and ensure we don’t have issues with injuries and suspensions throughout the season. Whilst they don’t look jaw-dropping amazing, they are more than capable of filling the void when called upon.
The squad was also boosted with the return of Nan Xiaoheng, a recognised striker. He scored 9 goals in 26 games for SJZ Gongfu last season, and I am certainly looking forward to his performances with the attacking trio behind him.
We went into pre-season with open eyes, recording 5-1 and 3-0 victories against lower league opposition, and whilst it is hard to take much from that quality, it was promising.
19 points from a possible 21 meant we were certainly building something special at the club, and it was the momentum we needed in the league given Dalian Professional, Hebei and Chengdu Rongcheng all were relegated from the Super League. The three teams were all favourites to take the top 3 spots, and our board had backed down their aspirations to place amongst the top four – if we get promoted, amazing, if we fall just short, impressive all the same.
SH Lucky Star, unfortunately, came up against us at the wrong time in the cup as we fired 7 past them; their only goal came from their only shot on target, a freekick struck from 30 yards. That victory set us up with a Fourth Round tie against Super League side Wuhan Three Towns, which makes May all that more interesting as we play against them and the three ex-Super League sides.
Despite confidence being at an all-time high following a narrow derby win over Rongcheng, Wuhan Three Towns struck gold. We absolutely battered them all game, but a winner in injury time was enough to send the Super League side through to the next round. For me, it was all about the response, and we did just that with an emphatic victory over Dalian Professional (our title challengers) and a slim win over Hebei.
We still remain undefeated in the league, and the gap at the top of the table was sitting at 5 – It could have been more, but I was happy enough with our progress considering where we were this time last season.
We kept our good run going until the reverse fixture against Dalian Professional, where everything that could go wrong, went wrong for us. A tough defeat to take, but the impressive 2-0 victory the following week was the perfect way to bounce back as we remained top of the league by the skin of our teeth.
With the transfer window open during the summer, I elected to try and strengthen the team once again with free signings where I could.
Signings were made more so from a squad viewpoint – we had a few disgruntled players over the game-time who wanted to move on, so I felt it was appropriate to replace them now with players content with a squad player status. Feng Jin was a treat given his versatility in playing down the right-hand side, whereas Gao Tianyi and Zhang Yufeng were both central options for rotation should it ever be required. Geovani Júnior, Stefano Termine and Li Ang were all the big signings this window and would fit straight into the team.
Unfortunately for us, Termine would get injured during his first week of training and was ruled out for a sizeable chunk of the year. He would have to wait his turn to make a mark in China, but I had faith in Xiaoheng.
Like two chess veterans, we and Dalian battled it out over the remaining weeks of the season; where we would win by 1, Dalian would win by 4. Where Dalian would win by 1, we would win by 3. Thankfully, goal difference wouldn’t come into the equation due to our 3-0 victory over Dalian earlier in the season, we led them by a goal in the H2H records and should we finish level on points then we would come out top.
Our gap remained at 5 until our surprise defeat at home to JS NT HM Codion – we absolutely piled on the pressure after going 2-0 down, but could only find the one goal to try and get back into the game. Dalian of course won their game to reduce the gap to two, and it was going to be a test of steel.
When we conceded a 94th-minute equaliser away to Zibo Cuju, I feared the worst. Dalian however, decided they were going to drop points that day also, so with no ground lost, we journeyed into the final two games with a two-point margin. A difficult away day to Nantong Zhiyun had me worried, but we managed to compose ourselves early thanks to Geovani Júnior and take control of the final day.
The task was simple. Avoid defeat. With ourselves and Dalian playing against teams who had nothing to play for – GX PG Hawlaeh & Zibo Cuju respectively – it looked as though fortune would favour us.
Dalian did everything they could to ensure the best possible chance of winning the league, but it wasn’t going to be enough. Xu Hui sent a rocket flying into the Hawlaeh net and sent us 1-0 up, and with our controlling position all season long, I didn’t fancy us to bottle it.
The game dragged out at 1-0 for a while, Hawlaeh weren’t causing many problems but was still a dangerous side. Thankfully Geovani Júnior rose highest to connect with a back-post header and ensured our status as champions.
A huge effort from the playing staff this year to get the job done and over the line, and I was over the moon to fulfil the promise to the board that we would do it this year. The media as always, peddled their negative narrative onto the story, citing a game away from the sack the last season, but I had faith everything would come good in the end.
Sichuan Jiuniu is going to the Super League!