Promotion to a new division was always going to come with challenges. However, the challenge becomes ten times more difficult when you move into a division where you are financially dwarfed compared to the rest of the league.
Smart recruitment was required following the foreign player limit increase, and I got to work right away on new faces coming into the side:
7 new faces were coming into the squad prior to the season commencing in March, and I was excited to see where this team could find itself prior to the mid-season window. I felt that the addition of Sidibé, Cácares and Kim Yu-Song in particular was going to be a statement of intent to the rest of the league that we weren’t just there to make up numbers. We are here on merit, and here to compete where we can.
Adjusting to the Super League scheduling was going to take a bit of getting used to, as they have a fixture rammed May 2024, with only one match in March 2024; annoying, but what can you do about it?
Immediately, my star striker hit the ground running during pre-season with 5 goals in the first 2 matches. Yu-Song then bagged a brace on his debut and continued to keep adding goals during the friendly period as we count down to the resume of domestic games in April 2025. Xu Hui continued to add goals to his name following his breakthrough season in the JIA League, which was promising to see that we were not going to rely on one player all season.
And then the period of squad pain. 9 games in the month of May followed after the return of domestic football in April. We finished April with a 1-1-1 record, but positives could certainly be taken throughout the month, especially the performance against Wuhan Three Towns where we almost completed the ultimate comeback after going 3-0 down after 12 minutes.
May contained the most fixtures against the bigger clubs, but we couldn’t hold our nerve against Beijing Guoan, Shanghai Port or Shanghai Shenhua. An impressive draw against Shandong Taishan was recorded, along with draws being recorded against Guangzhou City & Dalian Professional – both of which were massive missed opportunities. The biggest disappointment, however, was being dumped out of the cup by Dalian Professional’s B team. We led 2-0 for a large spell of the game, but we did concede 2 and then lost on penalties after I started to make numerous substitutes to keep players fresh for the league campaign – success was never really on the cards at this point, but it would have been good to go through a round or two at least.
Kim Yu-Song had been firing on all cylinders to this stage of the season against the smaller teams, but I really needed him to start doing it against the big boys; would he take that criticism in his stride?
The form we brought to the table during the height of summer was frightening, and as a result of it, saw us fly up the table in contention for a surprise continental push – against all odds! 22 points from a possible 27, with Yu-Song’s goals a key thing to point out; he was bagging goals against the bigger clubs. A hat-trick against both Henan and Wuhan Three Towns was the perfect way to address my point of scoring against the big boys, I could only hope that he would continue this run of form as we quickly approach the business end of the season.
I did notice that we were slightly stretched in some areas of the team. So I made it a priority to resolve this issue whilst I could in the August transfer window, and welcomed two fresh faces to the squad:
Two Chinese internationals were massive to bring into the team at this stage of the season, especially with the quality that Tsun and Browning will bring to the side. I was starting to become satisfied with the team, but I knew I couldn’t stop there – my focus then shifted to setting up scouting for the new year window, but the task at hand was the here and now. Could we upset all odds and enter a continental competition?
We continued our fine run into the months of August and September until Shanghai Port came calling and rocked the boat slightly. A lot of teams would have collapsed following a humbling defeat at home, but Kim Yu-Son was adamant to do everything in his power to ensure we would not lose to Beijing Guoan and Shanghai Shenhua for the second time this season.
All I can hope for is that the draws against Tianjin Jinmen Tigers, Bejing Guoan and Shanghai Shenhua would not drastically impact our chances of continental football by the end of the season; only time will tell in that case.
An undefeated end to the season, with some massive performances in there to keep the pressure on our contenders for the Asian Confederations Cup spot, as we sealed a record-high 4th place finish in our first season.
The champagne was popped to celebrate our successes. The passports were looked out. The potential away days were being planned by the fans. But it was cruelly snatched away from us in the final game of the domestic calendar – the Chinese FA Cup.
It was the Shanghai derby in the final of the competition, and after Port had secured the title, everyone thought that it was going to be the inevitable double for them. A 1-1 stalemate at the home of Shenhua meant they had everything to do in the return leg, but Míler Bolaños scored the only goal of the game to win the cup for Shenhua and the one-way ticket to the Confederations Cup at the expense of us.
The harshest way to lose out on continental football was dealt to ourselves, but I had to try and take a positive spin on this take. One less competition to worry about next season. Following a terrific league performance this season, I knew that I was bound to do something special with Sichuan Jiuniu – perhaps next year was going to be the year?
Keeping key personnel around the squad was going to be massive. There was no interest in Kim Yu-Song at all which was a massive bonus – the North Korean managed to bag himself 45 league goals in 33 games. If we could keep feeding him in and around the box, he was going to be imperative to any success we would have.
China now knows our name. Let’s make this country our own.