On April 22nd, Eastern Sports Club put an end to Kitchee‘s league domination over the last two years and snatched the 2015/16 Hong Kong Premier League title – one round before the end of the season. For the royal blues, this is their first championship win in 20 years and the 5th overall, with the previous ones dating back as far as 1956, 1993, 1994 and 1995.
However, their triumph didn’t come effortlessly. In fact, it took a hard fought 2-1 victory away to South China to finally seal the title. Over the last few weeks, Chan Yuen Ting’s side have appeared to be unsettled and began a trend of conceding goals early in the game – something that was present in their recent disappointing performances against Southern, Kitchee, South China and Yuen Long. The match on Friday almost began with a similar omen.
Just 12 minutes into the game, Ryan Griffiths looked certain to put his side in the lead, but his goal was denied by a controversial offside decision. Even the TV replay couldn’t clarify the situation, underlining once more the poor broadcasting quality of local games. However, this time Eastern were able to translate the early warning signs into some effective play up-front. In the 25th minute, Roberto Affonso’s volleyed cross into the box set up Brazilian Giovane da Silva, and the league’s top scorer was given the simple task of heading the ball straight into the the back of the net. The offside claims by the Caroliners remained unheard, and rightly so, as centre back Malisic remained the last man. The decisive goal came in the 44th minute, when Xu Deshuai’s free kick from the left found – once again – Da Silva’s head, giving goalkeeper Tsang Man Fai no chance to react.
Proceedings settled in the second half, but the game gained some new momentum when Clayton brought down Griffiths in the penalty box, who converted coolly from the spot himself, pulling one back for South China. The rest of the game was a tactical and hot-tempered drama with lots of bookings on both sides, leading to almost 10 minutes of injury time, before the liberating final whistle sounded to definitively hand Eastern the 2015/16 Hong Kong Premier League championship. Most of the 2,300 supporters, who found their way to Tseung Kwan O that Friday night, stayed on to celebrate the first league title since 1995, as the HKFA had already prepared to hand over the trophy that very night. Eventually meeting the high expectations set out for them at the beginning of the season, this victory also lifted a heavy weight off the team’s shoulders, especially after some troublesome weeks that raised doubts about their ability to win the league.
Barisic: “We kept fighting!”
Undoubtedly, one of the pillars of Eastern‘s success this year was Croatian-Australian striker Andrew Barisic, who is currently the second top scorer in the league. For him, the troubles of the previous weeks, which saw the blues suffer a humiliation against Kitchee in the League Cup semi-final and to Yuen Long in the FA Cup quarter final, was a matter of exhaustion. The tight schedule “took its toll on the players and their bodies, which finally caught up with us.” Also, despite the difference in resources, the Hong Kong Premier League is not an easy walk. “Everyone wants to beat Eastern, and they always give 120% against us, but I think we really prepared for the South China game like it was a final, and as we showed, we wouldn’t let anyone deter us from winning the league.” Addressing the “secret ingredient” for success this season, Barisic sees the strength of the team in the team spirit. “When we were down we didn’t give up on each other and we kept fighting.” But of course the quality of the players and the available resources shouldn’t be underestimated either. “We have probably the best players in the league and also the best attacking record.” All in all, it was this healthy mixture of camaraderie and the quality of the team that made the difference.
Female Coach in Asian Champions League?
However, aside from the title, it was particularly Chan Yuen Ting, who made waves in the global news circuit. Offside.hk was among the first outlets to emphasize Chan’s achievement for being (most likely) the first female coach in history to win a top-flight men championship in the world. At just 27 years of age, she is probably also one of the youngest. Since yesterday, this achievement has even been picked up by FIFA, who retweeted our early acknowledgment. The previous week, Eastern offered Chan – also known under her nicknames “Beef Ball” and “Auntie Ha” – a contract renewal for the 2016/17 season, showing once again the unconditional support she currently enjoys from management, players and fans. But, despite the craze over Chan’s achievements, it might also be important not to overly stress the role of her gender for this success. As Barisic points out, “It’s a great achievement for her and the club. But for us as players we didn’t look at her any different throughout the whole time, from when she was appointed coach to now winning the league.” This was also underlined when players didn’t spare Chan from the traditional cold-water shower.
With the title in their pockets, Eastern‘s next goal has been set even higher. Currently, the club hopes to enter the 2017 Asia Champions League that would give the Hong Kong side the opportunity to measure themselves with the likes of Guangzhou Evergrande, Urawa Red Diamonds or FC Tokyo. While a play-off qualification would be a rather difficult endeavor, there is the possibility that the HKFA might inherit a fixed group spot from Vietnam next year – although the AFC’s information on what exactly needs to happen remains relatively obscure. It will most likely depend on the performances of Kitchee and South China in the rest of the AFC Cup when compared to the Malaysian clubs in the same competition.
“20 Years” – Eastern’s comeback as role model for HK football
Founded in 1932, the club had a successful spell in the mid 90s when they won the championship for three consecutive years, before experiencing some serious ups and downs that saw them moving between the three divisions. In 2013, Eastern were finally promoted to the top flight again, and have since then established themselves as a footballing powerhouse to be reckoned with. The new era of Eastern can also be closely associated with chairman Lai Tung Kwong, whose role as a passionate football enthusiast can be compared to South China‘s Steven Lo and Kitchee‘s Ken Ng.
Eastern and Kitchee, the two most competitive teams in the Premier League at the moment, also demonstrate how football clubs ought to be run these days. Both teams have undergone a committed professionalization process over the last few years, and the sky blues and the royal blues are currently the only teams with proper fan engagement, offering both easy (and bilingual) access to merchandise and fan club membership. Of course, such commitment also requires a generous investment, which might be too much for some smaller clubs. One recent example is Sun Pegasus, who had to call it a day at the end of last season, despite (or maybe due to) their professional marketing efforts. However, that doesn’t mean that other clubs should use that as an excuse for avoiding improvements, and fans definitely expect more from the club management, as the recent boycott of South China supporters has shown.
Eastern SC Trophy Collection:
5x League Championship: 2015/16, 1994/95, 1993/94, 1992/93, 1955/56
4x FA Cup Winner: 2013/14, 1993/94, 1992/93, 1983/84
10x Senior Shield Winner: 2015/16, 2014/15, 2007/08, 1993/94, 1992/93, 1986/87, 1981/82, 1955/56, 1952/53, 1939/1940
2x Viceroy Cup Winner (now abandoned): 1980/81, 1970/71
PHOTO GALLERY: Chan Yuen Ting and Eastern Make Football History