Chinese native, Jing ‘Jack’ Meng, was the first ever non-Irish or non-western player to captain the winning team in the Derek Brady Cup

Chinese native, Jing ‘Jack’ Meng, was the first ever non-Irish or non-western player to captain the winning team in the Derek Brady Cup 

Gaelic Football part of life says Shanghai captain Meng

Asia GAA has been going strong over the past two decades and though the player base is largely Irish emigrant there has been significant recent native and international player participation. Last year was a milestone for Asia GAA as the annual Asian Gaelic Games saw a Chinese native, Jing ‘Jack’ Meng, make history in becoming the first ever non-Irish or non-western player to captain the winning team in the Derek Brady Cup.   

Meng who is from Shanghai and 34 years of age, won the historic honour last November when he led hosts Shanghai to their first ever senior football Asian cup victory. Five years of hard graft and dedication to a game he had never heard of saw him lift the cup for a sport he now calls part of life. 

*Never imagined  *

He first learned about Gaelic football in 2003 when as a business and marketing student at Athlone Institute of Technology in Westmeath.  He played basketball, soccer and table tennis at the college and knew about Gaelic Football on account of several of his classmates played Gaelic Football for AIT.  

“I discovered there is a sport in Ireland called Gaelic Football. But to be honest at the time I never imagined that I would play myself.”  

It wasn’t love at first site when he first saw Gaelic Football played on campus. 

“I thought the game was very quick. There was a lot of physical activity and at the time I thought it was rough, though I don’t think that now,” he remarked. He didn’t have any interest in playing as he liked more familiar sports. 

*Shock *

Jack graduated from AIT in 2007 but he would maintain the link as he now works and represents AIT as its Asia Director in Shanghai, China.  Jack didn’t come into contact again with Gaelic Football until 2011 when an Irish colleague and footballer invited him to practice with the Shanghai GAA club. He was in for a shock on a fitness level. 

“At my first training session, the physical level, I mean I thought I was fit but not even close to play.” He began training with the ladies team on that first night. He stuck with the sport however and his first match came a year later in 2012 at the China Games in Beijing. Jack had won selection to the Shanghai Mens A team but the one day Blitz Tournament was something of a baptism of fire. 

“I didn’t really know what to do and how to do it but I tried my best,” he said. 

In a 9 a side format, there was only one other Chinese player on the Shanghai side with the rest Irish. The team didn’t enjoy success but the overall experience for the Shanghai native was positive. 

“This first tournament was a learning curve for me.  Playing with Shanghai A team gave me huge confidence. I kind of played every game, and every minute for me I really enjoyed because of the way you learn no matter if you fail or success.”  

*Something new *

Then it was onto the Asian Gaelic Games later that year in Kuala Lumper, Malaysia and to play against the best teams from across the continent. The team exceeded expectations when reaching the semi-finals. Jack was selected for the A team again and found the level of play very high with the overall GAA experience bringing something new. 

“I remember that it was total different level to the China Games and it was the first time in my life that I travel with my team to another place outside China playing sport. It was very cool experience for me. 

“Because of the Asian Games people put more effort, more serious attitude so I enjoyed that very much.  I felt very lucky as a Chinese person to be in that level of the sport with Irish friends and colleagues, so I really cherished it. “ 

Jack Meng now found himself being part of club and didn’t have time to play any other sports during the season, “the relationship with the club, the trust that other club members for me, I decided to stay with the club and try the best to help the club more.” 

The following year was a big year for the team and Jack as they won the China Cup and the occasion was memorable for the Chinese player.   

“This was something really, really important to me.  That was my first time victory ever and that means a lot to me.” 

*Confidence  *

The 12th All China Games took place in 2014 and it was biggest ever with some 240 players representing 12 teams in the Men’s Cup and 8 in the Ladies Cup. The Shanghai men’s A team successfully defended their cup title and this time was even more unique for the Shanghai native as he was now captain of the team and playing at home. 

“In 2014 I had been playing over three years and I didn’t miss too many tournaments, so I kind of gained a little confidence, you know.  And receiving the captainship gave me a lot of confidence on top of that. I wanted to do a good job as the captain especially in my hometown of Shanghai for the China Games.  I even brought along my relatives. “ 

*Impressed *

Jack’s family were impressed that he could play against western athletes while the whole tournament setup opened their eyes. 

“Playing in front of my family made things very special.  In China you play really seriously sports you are either professionals, or, you never make that level. For me as a player in my early 30s and putting a serious effort on sports that’s not very common to see here,” he explained.   

“My family came to support me but on the other hand they come to see what the sport is as obviously they did not know the sport at all. The tournament the way it was setup, they thought we were professionals. But for Gaelic football itself they think Gaelic Football is very rough like what I thought when I saw it first.” 

More accolades followed that year when Shanghai, though not advancing in the senior cup, did win Intermediate with Meng as captain. 

“It was very dramatic at the end and then we realize we won and then we realize we have to step up and hold the trophy. I tried to keep calm. That was my first experience lifting the cup for Shanghai (at the Asian Games) and I escort the cup back home, personally. That was a great, great feeling for me.” 

*Historic moment *

The best was yet to come however as last year as hosts of the Asian Gaelic Games, the club won the senior Derek Brady cup for the first time in their history with Jack as captain. It was a proud moment for the Shanghai man. 

“I felt it was like history,” he said.  He had become the first ever non Irish winner of the Derek Brady Cup a feat that Asian GAA Chairman, Derry native Joe Trolan was proud of for the Chinese player. 

“It is a great feat that Jack achieved in such a short time.  He exemplifies what the GAA is in Asia and I was very proud to see him lift the Derek Brady Cup at the games in Shanghai.” 

Said Meng, “they did say that I am the first Asian really playing county level football. It’s special. 

“The Asian Games were in Shanghai the second year in a row and I was captain and we actually won. So I suppose not only for the football team but for the promotion of Gaelic Sports I played a more favourite role in 2016 than 2015, you know.”  Several local Chinese TV stations interviewed Jack on the historic occasion. 

*Chinese college football *

Meng’s involvement in Gaelic Football has helped recruit some local players as he has helped organize an All Chinese game each year around St. Patrick’s Day and has also coached a young Chinese college team.  

At last year’s Asian Games there were two All China university football teams taking part in the Junior Grade. One of those was the Beijing Dublin International College (BDIC) student side - a partnership between Beijing University of Technology (BJUT) and University College Dublin. The project began in 2014 (nurtured by Beijing GAA) but the other student team at the Asian Games is newer again from a partnership between AIT and Chinese college, East China University of Technology (ECUT) in Nanchang. 

“Since I see that first student team (BDIC) I thought it was a very good idea,” noted Meng. 

An arrangement was made between AIT and ECUT to set up a second Chinese student team with Jack mentoring the new entity.  

“I went down to Nanchang to coach them and arranged other coaches also to train them and the boys played fantastic as when the two teams played together at the Asian Games, the AIT team actually won.”  

Meng, feels that there is room for growth for students to play Gaelic at Chinese universities. 

“For sure (there is room for growth). For me we have been working with other universities in Shanghai about setting up teams and one of them is very serious about it.”  

*Part of life *

Jack’s wife now has also joined the club and their daughter likes to play as well.  He said that he is grateful to coaches and “everyone I know for support over the years and that is a key factor that has kept me going from day one.” 

Overall Jack Meng’s life has changed since he started playing football for the Shanghai club. 

“I have to say that since I joined the club, it is my entire social life. I not only play Gaelic Football I socialize with my teammates and even though I am a local here in Shanghai, I have more Irish friends than I do Chinese friends. It’s part of my life now. 

“On the pitch I enjoy playing football, so every time I know what I do well (and) what I didn’t do well. Playing good as a team is also something that I want to see. 

“Off the pitch, I try to recruit more club members and also try to promote Gaelic Sports in Shanghai. I think that’s also very, very important. I think it’s a very good sport and balanced game and a brave sport as well.  

“My lifestyle has changed. I played different sports but never one sport so very deep and serious. I will continue to play. It is a very healthy lifestyle and one that is very meaningful. “