From Celtic to China: the Irishman taking soccer to new places

The daily ‘nap’ at lunch time in China is a great idea, says the Irish soccer coach

Declan Roche is originally from Santry in Dublin. He left Ireland in 1986 at the age of 15 to begin a professional football career with Celtic. He played in the League of Ireland when he returned and when he stopped playing at 29, completed his coaching licences, getting his UEFA qualification. He returned to education as a mature student and graduated from Trinity College Dublin in addiction studies. He is now a soccer coach in China

When did you leave Ireland?

I have travelled to many countries to coach football and left for China in 2018. With Ireland not having a real football industry and many fine coaches out of work, I chose to further my career by moving to China where football is developing rapidly. My experience as soccer manager at Dublin City University has helped immensely, so did the all coaching licenses I did with the FAI.

Where did you go in China?


I arrived in Jiaxing city in south China after travelling for 30 minutes from Shanghai on the quickest train ever. It was difficult at the start, but I got great help and support from my boss Eddy Chang and his family. I miss Jiaxing as it is where my journey in China began, but we all move on and my career has now taken me to another city, Jinan.

Describe your work in China

My primary role here is to develop and implement a football programme in a private international school here in Jinan, the capital of Shandong province in Eastern China. I coach football in PE and also in after-school teams for students from primary level up to high school and college level.

I could say that in my youngest groups the girls are more advanced technically and tactically

Do you have an average day?

Well, I’m definitely an early bird. Most mornings, except the freezing mornings, I like to take a walk around the campus and have breakfast before I arrive at my office, which as I live on campus is about 200 yards from my apartment.

Preparation and timekeeping is key for me so I organise my classes for the day ahead, check equipment, pitches and link in with fellow teachers and students to find out if there are any issues and of course I water the plants on my desk - a very important job.

I generally have four classes a day, which I adapt to the students' needs and levels. Then there is the daily "nap" at lunch time, a great idea here in China. Normally I finish around 5.30pm, then I use the gym and swimming pool most evenings, listening to Christy Moore on the bike.

How is your work in China compared to DCU? Is there a language gap?

There are a lot of similarities to my role in DCU, where I was a coach of the soccer team, but the big difference when I first arrived was the language. I was very lucky I had a full-time interpreter who was with me each day. I often ask myself where I would have been without him? Where I work, in a private international school, all teachers and students, who are all Chinese, are encouraged and directed to speak English and they do so. That’s a real help for me, but I have begun Chinese language studies and am learning very, very slowly.

I demonstrate many aspects of football coaching drills to the students as I find is a good way around any language difficulties. The players will generally try move once they are shown what to do and then get on with it. I suppose football is a universal language.

Like in DCU, I am fully aware that the academic needs of students are the main focus, even more so here in China, I would suggest, so as a football coach it’s important communication is good and this benefits the students.

My students are great to work with and have a good sense of humour, which helps. I coach all ages at all football levels and try to be creative and positive each day. At DCU we had professional players in our squad so the language may have been the same, but the skills were diverse.

Is the soccer scene different in China?

I would have to say it is unlike in Ireland. I was born with a football at my feet, but it is not a hugely traditional sport here. If you look at the size of China, although major efforts are being made to develop and introduce football in many schools and they have made it clear that they wish to host the World Cup, the absence of the game on prime-time television, as opposed to basketball for example, could be a factor in the slow growth of the game here.

China is eight hours ahead of Ireland and Britain and this can affect anyone watching football as the Premier League games from England are screened in the early hours. However I do see very good progress being made with young players - boys and girls - and I am very happy with the progress I have witnessed with our own students.

Do girls play soccer?

Yes, indeed they do and play it very welll, particularly at a young age. I could say that in my youngest groups the girls are more advanced technically and tactically. It changes as the ages go up, but girls really enjoy the game. Recently I visited an all-girls full-time football school for 14 to 16 year-olds. Facilities there are really superb and the girls are at a very good standard, combining schooling and football every day, which amazed me.

What is it like living in China?

Having visited many countries, I think China is the safest country to live in. If you fully respect the people and the culture, you can have a very good life here. My goal moving to China was to further my career and enhance my life and I feel I am achieving both here. I work in what I can describe as my dream job, which helps.

Here's hoping the FAI will continue to have the live streaming service. It was such a boon for us football fans living abroad

Is Covid-19 making a difference to you there?

My first job in Jiaxing was affected by Covid-19 and this led to me making a career move to another job here in Jinan. However since I returned to China last September after not being able to return for many months due to the pandemic, apart from the initial mandatory 28-day quarantine when I arrived, it has had very little direct impact on my life here. In February precautionary travel restrictions for the Chinese New Year holidays prevented me from going to Shanghai, which I love for its metro system and the huge Fake Market so that was a pity.

Do you know any other Irish people there?

Yes, my great friend Karl Kelly from Malahide has been in China for nearly five years. Karl is a pro golfer based in Shanghai and he took me to see Rory McIlroy win the World HSBC Golf Championship in 2019. It was a brilliant few days.

What is the food like in China?

There are many foods similar to our own and many which are not ... so take your pick really. It’s not a “when in Rome” situation for me I’m afraid. I’m a coward when it comes to eating food in any country, so I enjoy cooking and I can get what I need in the local supermarket.

What do you miss about Ireland?

My dear Mam, my family and of course my daughter Jessiejoy, who as a professional dancer has visited many countries to perform, including China and Macau. I really miss going to games at home, especially League of Ireland games as I’m a great fan. So here’s hoping the FAI will continue to have the live streaming service they provided last season. It was such a boon for us football fans living abroad. I miss the little things such as cycling to Donabate and Malahide beach and having my swim in the sea. Also, the cliff walk from Portrane to Donabate as there is nowhere like it. Above all, though, I miss a decent pint with good friends.