Ever wondered what it’s like to play or coach in the lower divisions of the Hong Kong football league system? Jeff Hardbattle caught up with the staff and players at newly-promoted Second Division side Fukien Athletic Club to discuss the challenges the club has endured, their family-style ethos that led to their success in the Third Division last year, and the short and long-term future for one of Hong Kong’s oldest remaining competing teams. Our thanks go to General Manager Drax Chan King-yiu, Head Coach Lawrence Tang and players Kwai Mok and Sam To for their time.
Fukien Athletic Club were founded way back in January 1925, but it wasn’t until 1930 that the team entered the Third Division of the Hong Kong football league system. The club did enjoy early support from Chinese businessman and philanthropist Tan Kah Kee and the club’s Fukien-based committee, but despite this they never competed in the top flight during the twentieth century and spent much of their time in the bottom tier with their only triumph being a Hong Kong Junior Shield title in 1990. Their luck began to change towards the turn of the century, however, and the team clinched the Third Division A title in 1999, finally promoting to the Second Division. After spending two seasons there and missing out on promotion on both occasions, Fukien managed to clinch the title in 2002 to put an end to their long wait to compete at the top level in Hong Kong.
Current General Manager Drax Chan’s father, Timothy Chan Hung-ti (who was born in Fukien), served in the same position during the club’s time at the top, where they produced some impressive displays including a 2-1 win over Happy Valley in 2004 who at the time were in the midst of a championship battle with Sun Hei and Kitchee. Current Kitchee head coach Alex Chu was head coach during the club’s time in the First Division, and players that have been mainstays of the Hong Kong Premier League such as Chun Chiu-kit, Wong Chin-hung and Chu Wai-lam all donned the yellow jersey for Fukien.
Sadly, the team were relegated in 2005 after finishing second-from-bottom, after which the club began a steady and gradual decline that took them all the way back to the Third Division. “My father worked incredibly hard for three years to attract sponsorship to the club while we were in the First Division”, states Drax, “but although he used all his power and connections to treat everyone at the club well, the results weren’t good and he lost faith in a system where head coaches often took large salaries while the players sometimes received very little. He felt very lost and decided to step aside to allow another party to help lead the team”. But his son Drax never lost interest, and after convincing his father to allow him to help with the running of the club prior to his departure, he eventually took over his father’s position at the club and has helped to instill a family-style feel for players and coaches alike. “After we fell back to the lowest tier, I did find it difficult in organising the team, but luckily I had a lot of help. We don’t have the financial means to pay players, so it’s extremely hard to attract quality players who want to play for Fukien, but we have developed a ‘happy football’ environment at the club where we have a mutual love of football and we support each other even in the worst moments”.
Indeed, this method seems to be working wonders, as Fukien are now back in the 2nd Division after attaining a creditable 4th place finish in the 3rd Division last year. Sam To, a Hong Konger who attended high school in the USA, was top scorer for the team with an impressive twelve goals, and he also emphasised the togetherness of the squad. ‘We don’t play football for money, we play football for the love of the sport”, he said. “We are all equals, and we respect and listen to each others opinions. I think this is a key element in the recent success of the team”. His prowess in front of goal was undoubtedly a deciding factor in the team’s promotion charge (see below video), but the team did suffer from some early teething problems.
Head coach Lawrence Tang, who has also plied his trade coaching the youth and reserve teams at Yuen Long, brought in nine new arrivals at the start of the season, and although there were some initial transitional problems, the team eventually came into form. “I had to assess the team as a whole as well as set up a training schedule and new formation in a short period. Luckily, I was a Fukien player for 4 years, so I knew well about the older players’ characteristics. It was definitely a hard transformation period, and we dropped a lot of points at the start of the season, but by patience and consistency, we overcame it and we found our own style of play in the second part of the season.”
But what is it like to play in the lower leagues in Hong Kong? Club captain Kwai Mok, who has a wealth of experience playing for clubs outside of the top tier (Eastern District, Wing Go Fu Moon, Kui Tan) explained “The Fukien management team works very hard to build up team spirit and set up training venues for us, but we all have jobs and can only practice once a week. We also don’t have our own training centre, so we have to train at different places and times which can be a challenge for the players. Our team is quite young (mostly 18-23) so I enjoy sharing my experience with them as their captain and friend, but going professional in Hong Kong would be very hard for them due to lack of salary and support from the government. Bigger clubs don’t tend to look at potential talent in lower leagues, and prefer to invest their money on foreign players that will give them instant results”. Sam To also echoed these sentiments, saying “You can easily earn more money finding another job in most areas than you can from playing football. The environment here just doesn’t support the game – it’s very rare for us to even play on a grass pitch!”
Despite the challenges they face, the team remain very upbeat about the club’s future. “After confirming promotion, we spent some time in Taiwan playing friendlies against teams there to prepare for the new season and to work on our formation. Moreover, we will have fitness tests and fitness training before the start of the season in order to improve individual strength and the physical fitness for the players. Our squad may be young, but we’re confident we can have an impact on the 2nd Division”, said Lawrence Tang. When asked about the possibility of promotion, Drax Chan concluded “On a personal level, I will do all that I can to see the team that I love succeed, and by doing so help my dad get back some face. We aim to just take things as they come, and to maintain the family feeling in the team and see what happens.” Whatever the future may hold, it is very clear that for all at this football club, Fukien means family.
For more information about Fukien Athletic club, please visit their facebook page.