For six years, Mark Sutcliffe has been the CEO of the Hong Kong Football Association, with the mission to raise the standards of professionalism in the local game. As many insiders know, Hong Kong football can be overly complex and might require an essential balance of EQ, empathy, turning the other cheek and determination. Sutcliffe’s tenure has now come to an end and he has returned to his native England on October 1st. In a recent interview, the outgoing CEO shared his thoughts on some of the challenges and opportunities he encountered whilst navigating the nuances of the Hong Kong game. Importantly, the appointment of Gary White as Hong Kong’s new head coach was confirmed recently and Sutcliffe is convinced that White’s credentials, experience and personality made him the right candidate for the job.
He also highlighted the significance of the selection process to come to this conclusion.
“Gary White was the best candidate as we went through a very rigorous process. We had 150 applicants and a short list of 17. We eventually interviewed nine and the four-person-panel unanimously agreed that Gary was the best candidate by taking into account his application, his experience and the interview. He has good qualifications, has a UEFA pro license and knows Asia, as he has been here for six years. He has also managed a club in China and has coached four other international teams including two in Asia, Guam and Chinese Taipei. Everywhere he has been, he has improved results and improved the FIFA ranking. We were impressed by his approach and philosophy of football and he has already impressed with the planning and the networking he has done since he arrived in Hong Kong. He has met with a lot of clubs and players and seen many games. As far as I am concerned, he was the right choice when we appointed him and he has reinforced that since he arrived.”
Sutcliffe then went on to share about the biggest challenges he faced during his six-years tenure between 2012 and 2018.
“I think one of the challenges has been the new training centre. That has been a challenging project. Firstly, getting the land. Secondly, getting the money. And then thirdly, getting the construction completed. The construction process has been very problematic, so it took twice as long to build for technical reasons. That has been hard work, but we have got it over the line and as I say, it is there and that will be the legacy for the future.”
Sutcliffe also touched upon the ever-evolving relationship between the HKFA and the Premier League clubs and how sometimes this connection was not as close as it could have been.
“We have also had some challenges in the relationship between the HKFA and the clubs, some of which are understandable and some of which are cultural. One of the understandable ones is that the clubs see all the investment coming into the FA, but it is not necessarily cascading down to the clubs. However, that was never the plan under Project Phoenix. The money that we get from the government and the Jockey Club, we cannot give directly to the clubs anyway. So I think that has created a little bit of resentment in some places and we have tried our best with the Premier League. We have set the new league up and based it on the club license system. We also got a title sponsor and we got four times more prize money.”
Sutcliffe has also worked to make sure that the game itself upholds moral and ethical standards.
“We have instigated integrity programmes with the monitoring of match manipulation and introduced random drug testing. We have also tried to make the overall match day experience more professional. If you go to one of our games, then they are very well organized and I am not sure if the clubs realise how much investment we put into the Premier League. We are spending at least five times more on the organisation than we were previously. We have done our best to build up that relationship, but of course, the clubs would always like us to do more and one of the challenges in the future, is how we can develop professional football in Hong Kong. We will never get it back to the so called glory days, because it is a different world now. And in Hong Kong, if you want to watch good quality football then you have access 24/7 via TV or the internet. Still, we have to make the product of the Premier League more attractive, but this is something that the HKFA cannot just do on its own. This has to be done in partnership with the clubs, with the government as they own the facilities, and other stakeholders as well.”
Sutcliffe also raised the importance of both Eastern and Kitchee participating in the Asian Champions League group stages and how simply partaking raised the overall professionalism of the clubs even further, as they had to follow the stringent criteria of the AFC.
“It was one of the objectives when we came here. We introduced the club license system to partake in those competitions. You have to have the requisite license, so there was a bit of resistance to that as the criteria are quite stringent. There are sporting criteria, legal criteria, financial criteria and infrastructure criteria, and so for our clubs to attain that standard, in terms of the professionalism, it made a huge difference. I do not think they would have passed the license before and the catalyst for that was the opportunity to take part in the Asian Champions League and to get places in the group stages for the first time ever was quite a bonus. You got teams like Evergrande and some teams from South Korea and Japan coming to Hong Kong, and that was a massive boost and it gave the players a big leg up. Some of those players, due to the higher level of competition, have moved on to play in China and made more of a career out of it as well. In 2019, we don’t have a direct entry to the group stages anymore, so we have to rely on Kitchee getting through the playoffs and hopefully they will, as it is good for the fans, media and the game in general. I think participating at that level of competition is something we aspire to and have achieved, so hopefully we can maintain it.”
Despite his departure, Sutcliffe is aware of the biggest challenges for his successor.
“We are now in the fifth season of the Hong Kong Premier League and the quality has improved, but it is not attracting the level of spectators that we would like and we do have this problem with continuity, as some things have to change in the next few years. This the biggest challenge for the HKFA.”
Mark Sutcliffe has spent six years on the never-ending roller coaster of Hong Kong football and it is time for someone else to take the mantle. He has worked hard to lay the foundations of the game and projects such as the Tseung Kwan O Training Centre might soon be recognized as the fruits of his legacy.