Interview

A Beautiful Orange: The Timeless Ernest Borel FC Story

Photo: Deng Guohua

At the turn of the late 80s and early 90s, for a few momentous seasons, a new team known as Ernest Borel FC, entered the competitive fray of Hong Kong football. For three roller-coaster years, wearing their cult classic distinctive orange tops (surely a collectors item for the ages), they took on and defeated the old guard of established sides that had dominated the local scene for decades. Chris Lau delved into the team’s history and talked to former chairman Deng Guohua. 

The arrival of Ernest Borel FC revolutionized the Hong Kong game on and off the pitch, and set in motion the slow modernization of the 1st Division, of which the repercussions and ramifications can still be seen today in the present day Hong Kong Premier League. It could also be said that the Ernest Borel FC story is also indicative of the fluctuations that have prevented the Hong Kong game from developing further on the professional level. There was and is no sense of stability for many clubs, especially when it comes to financial sponsorship and backing. A sponsor can pull out anytime, a team can simply disappear, and committed players are left scrambling for new clubs. Without a firm foundation, only a few Hong Kong clubs have managed to persist through the decades and build up a decent fan base and culture. 

All teams emerge from somewhere, and now nearly thirty years ago, the watch company Ernest Borel bought the HKFA membership team rights from the defunct Sea Bee FC. Thus, a newly established football team burst onto the scene and the new boys made a long lasting impact on the ones who witnessed them. 

For three incredible seasons, Ernest Borel FC played some cavalier attacking football, and breathed life into a slowly stagnating domestic scene. Sadly, not all fairy-tales have joyful endings, and within four years of their inception, Ernest Borel were disbanded. But such was their impact that the memories remain for many.

Ernest Borel FC reunited decades after their glory days. Photo: Guohau Deng

As a brand new team, Ernest Borel FC blooded young players, like former Hong Kong international Au Wai-lun as well as Chan Shu-ming, Wong Chi-keun g, Tam Ah-fook, and Choy Wai-man, who all went onto have solid playing careers. The team had a  budget of HK$5 million for their maiden season, and finished as respectable fourth. They then became more ambitious in their signings, and spent more money on players from overseas. 

One of  their most important signings was a then unknown Australian midfielder by the name of Craig Foster. Foster arrived in Ernest Borel’s second season from Singapore and made an immediate impact.

Craig Foster and Paul Murray. Photo: Robert Ng

Foster gained vital experience playing for Ernest Borel, setting up and scoring many crucial goals, including two assists in the famous Viceroy Cup final win over South China. The midfielder showed passion and ran his heart out for the club. Foster probably never knew what incredible adventures lay further ahead of him, as he sprinted up and down the old Mong Kok and Hong Kong stadiums. At that time, his future with Portsmouth and Crystal Palace, as well as the eventual Socceroos captaincy were still some years away. 

Ernest Borel spent big to bring in overseas players to further boost their squad. Mixed in with the youth talents were players like forward Keith Thompson, whose previous sides included Coventry City and Spanish club Oviedo. Ernest Borel made a coup when they signed former Aston Villa star Gary Shaw, who had won the European Cup and the domestic title with the “Villians”.

Gary Shaw, far left, and his glory days with Aston Villa. Photo: BirminghamHistory.net

Ernest Borel FC also managed to sign former Wimbledon team mates Carlton Fairweather and Clive Goodyear, Crystal Palace goalkeeper Perry Suckling, as well as Paul Murray, who scored in the Viceroy Cup final. Former Arsenal player Raphael Meade also played in the 1992-1993 season, and all served with distinction in the famous bright orange jersey.

Ernest Borel FC. Photo: Deng Guohua

Ernest Borel went onto win two major cups, including a historic win over South China in the 1991-1992 Viceroy Cup (match highlights below) with a very young Au Wai-lun scoring the crucial winner (at minute 7:20 in the video), after Paul Murray had given Ernest Borel a vital lead with his storming header (at minute 2:42 in the video). Both goals were set up by Craig Foster. They also won the 1991-1992 FA Cup. Then the glory days ended, and within a year the team ceased to exist. 

In an exclusive interview, former manager (1991-1992) and chairman of Ernest Borel (1992-1993),Deng Guohua, shared his treasure trove of memories about his upstart side, who came out of nowhere to play some swashbuckling attacking football and left an undeniable mark on Hong Kong football history. Deng, who is also the President of the Amateur Football Association of Guangdong, first discussed how the team was formed from the old Sea Bee team in the late 80s.

Deng Guohua, then manager of Ernest Borel FC. Photo: Deng Guohua

“I remember back in 1988 we prepared to create a new team and we started in the 1989/1990 season. Back then our business worked in conjunction with the Swiss Ernest Borel factory, so the president back then was Lum Wai-wah, who I have played football with since we were young. He viewed the sport with a great passion, so we thought we could get involved with the Hong Kong professional football scene.”

“Back then in the 80s, Hong Kong football was still very popular and the support and interest was very high. So we thought ‘Why don’t we get involved?’.”

“We bought the club license from Sea Bee in June which only left us with July and August to find players. It was hard, as most players already had teams, so we used a lot of Sea Bee players. Our initial target was to win the title, but we then decided to stabilise the team in the first season, and then be more ambitious in the second season.”

Deng Guohua was heavily involved with Ernest Borel. Photo: Deng Guohua

Deng also explained how resistant the “Old Guard” teams like South China, Eastern, and Happy Valley, were and how they refused to release players to Ernest Borel, which made building a squad even harder.

“It was good fun to be involved in the league. The strongest teams were Eastern, Lai Sun, and South China and they had the strongest squads and the best overseas players. We hoped to find some strong players as well, and we were involved in the first actual monetary transfers between Hong Kong clubs, which was not so common. Players like Leslie Santos of South China and Lee Kin-wo of Eastern were not released by their clubs. So we signed some Hong Kong players like Tam Ah-fook and Ng Kam-hung, but we still needed to get some more players as we would not be able to compete on a level playing field.”

Ernest Borel also tried to change the number of players that Hong Kong teams could sign from overseas, and pushed hard to get this rule altered. Eventually, the new policy was achieved with the help of Veronica Chan Yiu-kam.

Chan was and is the grand old dame of Hong Kong football, who wielded huge influence and still garners wide respect amongst the football community. She founded the Hong Kong Ladies Football Association in 1965 and was a member of the Hong Kong Football Association’s executive committee from 1973, as well as a vice-president for two decades.

Deng Guohua and Veronica Chan MBE

“Back then clubs could only play three overseas players, but we hoped to have five so there would be more balance. The HKFA had a vote about this, and there was a lot of protest by other clubs. But in the end, with the help of Veronica Chan Yiu-kam, five overseas players could play for Hong Kong teams. So in the middle of the first season, we decided to buy more players.”

A Young Au Wai-lun learnt his trade at Ernest Borel. Photo: Deng Guohau

With the new changes in place, Ernest Borel scouted far and wide for players, and brought in a mix of up-and-coming players like the aforementioned Foster and Shaw. 

“We found players like Keith Thompson who played for Coventry and we also signed Gary Shaw, who played for Aston Villa and who had won the European Cup with Villa and the PFA Young Player of the Year. We also hired Clive Goodyear and Carlton Fairweather, who had played together at Wimbledon. Carlton Fairweather came later and we also added in Craig Foster. There was also Paul Murray and the the former Crystal Palace goalkeeper Perry Suckling. Those players were really important.”

The team was now bearing shape, but still needed to gel together, which was an issue that Deng acknowledged, after the initial results had not been too promising.

“We went to China to play a friendly competition, and we lost all the games as the team was still getting to know each other and blending in. In our first season in the league, we lost a few early games to Double Flower, Sing Tao and South China. This was after we beat the Police football team, but we were already too far behind, so we focused on the cup competitions.”

Ernest Borel win the Viceroy Cup: Photo: Deng Guohua

The persistence paid off for Ernest Borel FC. Deng went onto recall his favourite memory while in charge of the club: 

“My favourite memory was the Viceroy Cup and it was the final against South China. We eventually won both the Viceroy Cup and the Hong Kong FA Cup. The final was also one of the last competitive matches at the old Hong Kong Stadium and it was a full house with over 20,000 fans. There was more than a trophy at stake, as a record prize money of HK$ 700,000 was to be awarded to the winning team, and the incentives were raised even higher in a friendly bet between the two owners.”

“We had a friendly rivalry with South China and their owners, and we used to bet against each other. The stake would be distributed to the winning team’s players. The prize money for the Viceroy Cup was HK$ 700,000, and back then this was a record for a cup final win. If South China would beat us, then we would have also given them HK$ 500,000 and vice versa. So this made the game even more competitive, as the winning team would win a lot of money and the players would win a lot of money to share.”

“The ICAC even came to find me, as they were puzzled why the owners of the rivals would give me a cheque worth so much money. Luckily we won the match, because if we would have lost the game and I still would have got the cheque, then I would have been a person of interest!”

Winning the Viceroy Cup gave the team the motivation and strength to keep playing their vibrant brand of attacking football, and soon they went on to win the FA Cup with a winner from Clive Goodyear, who uniquely had won the FA Cup in England with Wimbledon in 1988 and now did the same in Hong Kong.

“Winning the Viceroy Cup was a wonderful moment, and then a few months later we played in the FA Cup final against Instant Dict. It was raining hard and it was live on television. Instant Dict said we should postpone until Tuesday, but we decided to play, as the game would not have been broadcast on Tuesday night. It was important to play the game, as back then, having a game live on television was a lot of publicity and exposure. So we decided to play the game, Goodyear scored, and we won the FA Cup 1-0.”

In almost dreamlike fashion, Ernest Borel burst onto the scene to take on and defeat some of the best in Hong Kong and then, as fast as they rose, they disappeared back into oblivion. Borel wanted to build on their cup wins, but won only two of their first ten league games. The return on investment in the team was beginning to look less viable. After three seasons, two cup trophies and spending an upward amount of HK$ 25 million, the company decided to focus on investing back into their own business as well as directing funds towards other sporting ventures and advertising campaigns. The team lost the FA Cup final against Eastern and was then disbanded. In a flash, the club no longer existed, and players were left in a state of limbo.  

Deng said it was a hard decision to cease the sponsorship, especially as it was only four years into a five-year plan. Most importantly, the team had achieved some level of success despite being so relatively young.

“Ernest Borel continued to play, but we did not win any trophies. It must have been the fourth season when the team disbanded, although we planned to play for five years. We were a little bit disappointed, but this was not due to the results. Back then we also had a minor issue with the HKFA, which we deemed unfair, so we thought about it and decided not to continue. Also, Ernest Borel wanted to get listed on the stock market. We had spent a lot of money on football, and some investors may not have wanted us to spend so much money on this.”

Ernest Borel FC came and went with impunity, and for a brief few seasons, in their own distinctive way, were one of the first truly modern Asian football clubs: in the way they went about their business dealings, how they blooded younger players, their attacking style of play, and how they mixed in commercial interests with the results on the field. They set the benchmark for other teams to overhaul themselves on and off the field.

A watch company, one of the nicest Hong Kong club kits ever, and a timeless team who, in the final throes of the glory days of local football, changed the game in the city. Those involved will always remember the time when an upstart team burst out of nowhere to give the Hong Kong football establishment a formidable test.

A blur of brilliant orange, almost dreamlike and fantasy-like in nature. To some of the players and those involved, maybe it was all just one incredible dream, one they wished could continue forever. But sport, like life, keeps changing, and Ernest Borel are now just a wonderful lingering memory of a bygone era of the beautiful game in Hong Kong. 

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