Terry on Football Focus, November 1999

Terry Singh is a grassroots football coach from Leicester who has worked in China for the past 12 years. Here, the 46-year-old talks about growing up in Leicester, British Asians in football, and the advice he’d give to anyone investing in China…

Like everyone, I wanted to become a player. I used to write letters to clubs, asking for trials. I had one or two at Leicester, where I grew up, but I didn’t get in. There was something holding us back – and that was a lack of Asian players. There was a real lack of Asian players in the 1970s and 80s.

After school, I worked with my uncle on the markets, up and down the country. I worked in factories. I did many jobs. But I still wanted to work in football. That was my ambition. I thought, if I can’t become a player, I’ll be a coach. It was Leicester City’s Football in the Community scheme that opened things up for me. I started there in 1993, when I was 23.

To begin with, it was all voluntary – coaching, organising events, running camps. I might get some money for petrol, but it wasn’t about money – it was about showing people that I could do it. Some weeks, I was out at 8am and back at 8pm, seven days a week. But I was learning about young people – how they tick, how they learn, what they understand.

Once, someone said to me: “Terry, don’t work with other communities – coach Asian teams only.” I said: “Sorry, I don’t think like that.” I think of the whole community, not one or two parts of it. White, black, Asian, everyone. I worked in the inner cities, out in the county, everywhere.

I worked for Leicester for five years, got my coaching qualifications, but I grew frustrated in the UK. I wanted to see the world. I went to New Jersey but it wasn’t for me. The company was about making money, whereas I wanted to develop players. On the plus side, I got my USSF C Licence.

Back in the UK, I got a basic teaching certificate and I did some supply work to pay the bills. But I still wanted to work in football. In 2003, I saw an advertisement in an FA magazine. It was from a Chinese company called Avando, who were looking for British coaches. China had qualified for the World Cup in 2002 and there was a big push to teach football in schools.

A gentleman called Zheng Wang came to London to do the interviews. The process was very slow – they interviewed me in November 2003 and didn’t invite me out until June 2004. My first session was at a military base. The first thing they did was organise a game – they wanted to see if I could play. The first impression is very important there. Luckily, it went really well.

Honestly, I wasn’t nervous about moving to China. The only thing I wanted was to get involved with football. I just wanted to help the kids, and develop their skills. In terms of language, I learned the simple things – hello, how are you, and so on. I learned to use chopsticks. I showed my enthusiasm, and the Chinese took me in.

Once I was in China, I helped organise the first tour of Germany for middle schools in China. It was run in partnership with Hertha Berlin of the Bundesliga. I then worked at a middle school in Nanjing, building towards a tournament for all of Jiangsu province (population: 80million). Beforehand, we were playing friendly games, and we were getting thrashed – scoring lots, but conceding lots.

One of things Chinese children lack, in my opinion, is teamwork. The one child policy means they’re very single minded. They don’t think about others. They’re not used to team work. And that can be a problem – especially in defence. So that was something we worked on. When we got to the tournament, we won it without conceding a goal. That was very satisfying, to see that work pay off.

I believe you make your own luck. The school where the tournament was held was in Pizhou, an underdeveloped city in Jiansgu. After we won, the principal invited me to work at his school, to carry out a football programme and teach English. So I worked there, and went back to England in 2006.

When I was in England, I realised I wanted to go back to China. In 2008 I went to work in Beijing for three and a half months. While I was there, I met someone from Beijing Sports University, and I ended up working there for five years, teaching and delivering football language courses.

A lot of people are going to China to develop the game. That’s good, but first they need to understand the Chinese culture. I’ve lived with them. Their culture is 5,000 years old and you’re not going to change it overnight. Football is not in their DNA. No matter who comes over, the Chinese football DNA has to be organic. David Beckham, or whoever, can’t impose it on them.

I left the university in 2014. Last year I went back to work in a school in Zhengzhou, and I will be going back again. I’m now the director of China Sport and Education, which delivers education and sport programmes across China. My language skills are coming on – they were non-existent in 2004, and now I can speak simply, although I’m not fluent.

I think the Chinese see me as a guy with drive. And that started all the way back with Football in the Community in Leicester. You have to have the same passion you started with. I haven’t lost that, but I have gained a new world.

Interview by @owenamos. Follow Terry @terrysingh69

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