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Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: China’s Little Wolves can grow into a mighty pack

By Johnny Phillips | Wolves | Published:

The scale of humanity in China is sometimes overwhelming. Wolves’ pre-season trip to the Far East has been like no other.

The incredible Shanghai skyline. The density of population. The endless high rise state buildings, commercial offices and tower blocks stretching as far as the eye can see. Watching life go by at high speed on board a bullet train travelling at more than 210 miles an hour is surreal. There has been a rooftop fashion show from a top international designer, supported by some of China’s biggest music acts, with the backdrop of the city lit up over the Huangpu River. We’ve had the unveiling of the club’s first ever megastore in China. And then there was a unique Tai chi experience for some of the squad on the 40th floor of one of Fosun International’s newest offices.

On Thursday morning, there was a chance to see a different side of the club’s trip here. Throughout the week, the Wolves Foundation has been working with locals on the ground to leave a community imprint behind. On Monday, alongside the Fosun Foundation, they spent the school day putting on coaching sessions at Maigaoqiao Primary School in Nanjing. The session saw 30 pupils aged between eight and 11 experience how football can develop their education and sporting opportunities. The teachers and parents from the school also received a presentation from Wolves Foundation and will be guests at the Nanjing Olympic Sports Centre for the game against Newcastle.

On Tuesday the foundation supported the Premier Skills Cup, run by the Premier League in the same city, with Under 12s mixed teams competing ahead of Wolves’ semi-final with Newcastle the following day. Tom Warren, Wolves Foundation Schools manager and academy coach Mark McLaren took charge of the Wolves team, alongside a local Premier Skills coach. Wolves reached the final but lost out to the local team representing West Ham United, managed by former Hammers and Wolves striker Carlton Cole.

Today – Thursday in China – there was an opportunity to spend a morning at the Jiulong Model Middle School in Jiangwanzhen district, away from the first team. In busy Monday morning rush hour traffic it was a half-hour drive from the team hotel near the Bund in the city centre. As the minibus full of foundation staff crawled along the urban highways, sometimes five lanes bumper to bumper, it was hard to see where a football pitch could be squeezed in anywhere.

But eventually we turned off the main road and after a few more junctions the minibus pulled into the driveway of a smart school. The noise from the traffic had dimmed, instead it was the incessant chirping of crickets in the trees lining the school that accompanied us now.

Wolves in China

The welcome for the Wolves Foundation was a warm one, as children in their school team’s football stood in their shirts to form a guard of honour for foundation staff Will Clowes, Laura Nicholls and Warren. The morning involved a presentation in the class room from teachers, followed by a coaching session out on the small artificial pitch in the school’s playground.

With space at a premium in Shanghai, the children are grateful for the facilities. But it was not just children from the school who took part in the coaching session. A group of youngsters wearing Wolves strips joined them.

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These children had made a huge journey to be part of the day. Kate Zhao, Fosun’s executive branding director, explained how they had arrived in Shanghai.

“The Fosun Foundation was set up seven years ago as a non-profit organisation,” she said.

“Its major initiatives are entrepreneurship, education, health and arts. They were the mission statements of our founders thirty years ago. Some of the children here today have come from very remote villages in China, and they lack the basic infrastructure and knowledge to set up health clinics for the residents. They have never come to Shanghai or any metropolitan area, they have not even taken an aeroplane before. So they have been sightseeing, visiting the Huangpu River and the Pearl Radio and Television Tower, as well as coming to the class today. We call them ‘Little Wolves’ as a nickname, they are supported in a joint programme by the Wolves Foundation and Fosun Foundation. There are girls and boys who play in the teams together. They have not got the same facilities as the children at this school in Shanghai, but they are just as passionate.”

It was fantastic to be able to chat with some of the children, via translator Xhang Yi, who has been working in grassroots football in Shanghai for the last four years.

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“The Wolves coaches have brought a very good atmosphere to the school, I really like the club’s values,” she said. “I went to Wolves’ Academy last year. I saw that Wolves coaches players who are very knowledge, keen and professional. And they are very humble, so I really liked that. Football doesn’t just help players getting technically and physically better, but it helps on the social and psychological side too, helping open your mind. It helps you to grow yourself by making more of your own decisions.”

Nicholls, Wolves Foundation senior manager, added, “At a lot of the schools they have a real focus on football. They’re really proud of what they have achieved but what they want to do now is share some examples from the UK, they’re really open to learning. We did a school visit in Nanjing on Monday and we have two today in Shanghai. It’s a great opportunity to share some of our work, so we can bring the football club closer to the community. I’ve been out here in China eight times before. I first came over in 2011, so to see how they have progressed with football is fantastic.

So what is the most rewarding part of the journey? “Seeing the coaches working here has been great,” Nicholls adds. “But also to see the children inspired by western coaching sessions. When I first came over in 2011, and said I worked for Wolverhampton Wanderers, nobody knew who that was, but now you see how much the club and foundation is progressing.”

Wolves in China

Head of Wolves Foundation Clowes worked for the Wolves Community Trust, which preceded the foundation, and has been impressed with the development of community work under the club’s Chinese owners. “We have been working in China for quite a long time, before Fosun’s takeover, working alongside the Premier League with coaches and engaging young people,” he explained. “Since Fosun took over I’ve been exposed to their global corporate responsibility activity. It is mindboggling the amount of work they do. It doesn’t always get the media attention, but the work they are delivering on the ground is quite astonishing.

“The opportunity for us to do a whole range of projects with the Premier League, schools, giving children the opportunity to be exposed to Wolves and professional football from the UK. The one we are at today is a great school. We live and breathe our work in Wolverhampton, and it is really important to us, but sometimes we don’t realise the impact overseas. To travel around China delivering these projects, it’s exciting to see how many young people know all about Wolves now.”

Whatever the outcome of today’s final against Manchester City, Wolves will return to England knowing they have left their mark on and off the pitch. The two foundations of Wolves and Fosun have formed an excellent relationship. This week has brought many highlights and, for the many children who experienced the club’s work, those will last a lifetime.

Johnny Phillips

By Johnny Phillips

Sky Sports Soccer Saturday pundit, giving his thoughts on football across the country.

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