On 10 October 2012, a red headed Englishman arrived in Hong Kong in search of a new life. Eleven years later, he is one of the city’s most recognizable footballers.
By the time Freddie Toomer landed in Hong Kong on an autumn day in 2012, football was the last thing on his mind. He was to begin a new job soon selling London real estate to foreign investors.
Only months before, he had decided at 20 years old that he was never going to be a professional footballer.
Toomer admits that he had fallen out of love with football, though not long after he arrived in Hong Kong, he began playing for Colts – a Yau Yee League side under the auspices of Hong Kong Football Club. He says that he still enjoyed training, but he never held ambitions of competing against the best players that the city had to offer.
In the eleven years between 2012 and 2023, Toomer’s life changed significantly. He decided to start his own business and settle in Hong Kong. Eventually, he rediscovered his passion for the game and joined HKFC’s first team.
After playing as a goalkeeper for all of his life, he even decided to score a goal at the other end – one that would end up going viral on the internet.
The story of Freddie Toomer is one of resilience, determination and character. But in his heart, he’d have it no other way.
Long before he stared down the barrel of the Hong Kong Premier League’s best attackers, Toomer was facing shots from his older brother Jack. As the youngest of six, he was made to stand in between the posts while Jack, who was three years older, would whip balls at him with his left foot.
“It was pure bullying,” laughs Toomer. “It was, ‘Shove little Freddie in goal and smash balls in his face.’ There was no doubt about it. I had no say in the matter.”
Initially, he was a reluctant keeper, and he still cringes at the memory of the time his father informed his coach that he could play in goal. But by the time he was 9 or 10, he realized that he had found his calling on the pitch.
Although he grew up in New Forest – about 20 minutes west of Southampton – he spent every summer playing for the Saints Academy. His fondness for the position began to increase as time wore on when he received more and more coaching.
Toomer explains that he has fallen out of love with football many times in his life, but never goalkeeping. In his view, goalkeeping is an art – from the psychological aspects, to the technical aspects, to the individuality of the position.
One person he credits with fostering his love for goalkeeper is his ex-coach Keith Granger, who now works for England manager Gareth Southgate as a scout.
“He was ahead of his time in a lot of ways with his sessions,” Toomer said. “I look at some of the sessions now online and I’m like, yeah, Keith was doing that 10-15 years ago in a park, in Southampton, with a group of rookies. Before, goalie training was just up and down, lots of cones, busy, busy, busy. Whereas, he was all about the positional play.”
Toomer had barely turned 16 when he left Southampton Academy for the Eastleigh U18s. After less than a handful of matches for the U18s, he was promoted to the Reserves, from which he was often sent out on loan to other non-league sides to gain experience.
“I’ll tell you one thing that was really key for me: When I was at Eastleigh, I was getting shipped out on loan all the time to other non-league clubs,” he recalled. “I’ve got 100 appearances with different clubs and I’m like 16-17, but the manager just wasn’t going to play me so I knew I had to go out on loan or play in the reserves.
“I kept going back and forth to Romsey Town [three tiers below] and I remember meeting Keith on a Friday. The kickoff was on Saturday and he could see that I was pretty down. I was so pissed off, coming in and out of the team, and I thought I was better than the goalie at Eastleigh, obviously, but I wasn’t getting that. He said, ‘Look, Saturday is your first game for Romsey, that’s how you’ve got to look at it.’”
Going out on loan meant a baptism of fire for Toomer who would go up against men twice his age. When asked to contrast his experience with that of Justin Fung and Justin Estlinbaum, two of HKFC’s other goalkeepers who both turned 19 this year, Toomer noted that the pair are still very green compared to keepers in England at the same age.
“It’s just so different. When I was 16, I played men’s football. These two lads have barely played any football at all but they’re about to go and play in the Premier League in Hong Kong,” he said, with concern. “It’s a completely different landscape. Emotionally, they both need to mature very, very quickly. But I wish that we had them [at the club] 2-3 years earlier to work on their fundamental base.
“It’s going back to basics, like hand shape, being balanced in your set, and a little footwork. Like, I’m showing them footwork drills that for me, I can do in my sleep because I was doing them at such a young age; It’s in my DNA to do it. These boys are still struggling with it just because they haven’t put the reps in. So, I think you really need to start from the bottom-up, and I think you’ll see better outcomes.”
Towards the end of the 2010-11 season, Toomer travelled to Hong Kong for the first time. The occasion was the annual Soccer Sevens tournament for which Eastleigh had accepted an invitation to participate. The club were managed at the time by Ian Baird, who had played for and managed Instant-Dict in the late 90s, before a brief managerial stint for Hong Kong.
Toomer would return to England and play one more season for Bemerton Heath, but the wheels were already in motion for a life-changing move to Hong Kong.
“One of the coaches [in Hong Kong] planted an idea in my head,” Toomer remembers. “He was like, ‘You’re not really going to make it in the UK because you just don’t pass the eye test with your height and stuff’ – which was true. I was getting rejection with my height all the time which was so annoying. ‘But come out here and you’ll piss it cause technically you’re strong.'”
Toomer still remembers the exact day he landed in Hong Kong: it was 10 October 2012.
At that point in his life, at age 20, Toomer was looking for a fresh start. However, he could never fully walk away from football.
“I said to Bairdy, ‘I’ll just come out with you and can you find me a club?’ which he kind of did – Hong Kong Football Club,” he said. “But I also found a job which was selling London real estate to investors. I do owe my old boss quite a lot because he just gave me a job on a whim really, because he knew Ian.
“By that time, I had sort of given up on football. I still loved training and stuff, but I wasn’t in the mindset to be like ‘I want to go play Kitchee’…I wasn’t even bothered. I was 20 years old; I was enjoying Hong Kong.”
Playing Sunday league football provided a sense of normalcy for Toomer in a time of transition. But when he arrived at HKFC, he was told that the first team already had three keepers, and was asked, instead, to play for one of the club’s Yau Yee Legue sides instead.
After spending three years at Colts, Toomer switched to Wanderers – another of HKFC’s Yau Yee’s sides. By 2017, word of his quality had spread to incoming first team boss Tony Hamilton, whom Toomer had been acquainted with thanks to friends at home. Hamilton invited the keeper to join the first team, which he readily accepted.
He enjoyed great success in the First Division, winning the league twice in four years – going unbeaten in 2017-18 and winning every game in 2020-21. The club accepted an invitation from the HKFA to promote into the Premier League in 2021 but found life in the top flight to be difficult in the early going, despite their dominance in the lower divisions.
“Massive. It’s massive just on a fitness basis alone,” Toomer says of the gap in quality between the First Division and the Premier League. “You’ve got probably two or three good teams in the First Division that we thought ‘Right, these will be decent games.’ But even our fitness levels there – we would go win games later on, or we’d bring on a couple of players, but it would always be 50-50 up to that point.
“I think the Premier League is just a different kettle of fish – you’re training every day. It’s the same in the UK. You’ll find that there’s really good footballers in the lowest levels in the UK, but as you go up, they get fitter, stronger, tactically more aware, and more organized. And that’s basically what you’ve got [in Hong Kong].
“There should be another two divisions between First Division and Premier League, in my opinion. It’s completely different.”
Toomer revealed that the team worked to improve their fitness levels after the 2021-22 season was paused and eventually cancelled. But the keeper was quick to point out that club greatly needed a change in mentality between the first and second season.
HKFC had recruited players with prior top flight experience ahead of the season but the group dynamic wasn’t right. Even on a personal level, the start to life in the Premier League was inauspicious.
“Literally, I was in London when the news broke that we’re in the Premier League,” Toomer recalled of the time. “I was actually heading to Dubai and I got a test back saying that I had COVID, and then I literally did get it. I was flat on my back so I missed virtually all of preseason.
“I saw the sort of players we were bringing in and it looked quite exciting on paper, but then realized it was completely wrong. When I came in, it was messy…everything was messy. The roles weren’t clear. We had too many players at training. My first session back, it felt like a trial – there were 30-odd players. We were still finding our feet but [the season] was just a write-off.
“I played two, three games, and we weren’t that bad when I played. We just had two or three players that could not play at that level under any circumstances, and when you’re playing against Lee Man or even [Hong Kong] U23, they’re going to expose that over 90 minutes.”
In total, Toomer was in and out of quarantine four times before he had made an appearance during the 2021-22 season. After missing the first eight matches of the season, Toomer finally made his season debut on 21 November 2021, only five days after leaving his final quarantine.
His experience is reflective of a chaotic season for both the club and league. The eventual cancellation of the season came as a blessing in the disguise as it allowed the club to view it in the lens of a soft launch to life in the Premier League.
Adjustments were made over the summer of 2022 which included the hiring an additional coach to help with shape and to add experience to the staff. Proof of the club’s improvement, according to Toomer, was that the HKFC had lost 3-0 to Lee Man in 2021-22, but narrowed the deficit to 2-1 a year later.
“It was good to have that rough patch. You learn the most when you lose games,” he said. “I think there’s being fit and there’s being willing to run. I’ve seen fit players that blow up because they’re not ready. So, I think it’s being prepared to run and being prepared to put your body on the line.
“Some of the games…Eastern at home – body on the line. Lee Man at home – body on the line. Kitchee – I know we lost that 3-0, but we could’ve won that game or got something out of it. Even the first game against Sham Shui Po, it was baking hot [but] we won 1-0. I mean, to win that 1-0 after losing games like 5-0 was very surreal.”
After spending six years in his first job in Hong Kong, Toomer founded his own company in 2018 which entails frequent travel to meet with clients in the UK. As an example, hours after HKFC played Kitchee at home on 26 February, he was on a flight to London. He missed the following week’s Sapling Cup match, but made it back in time for the league match the week after before flying back.
In total, Toomer estimates that he has flown back and forth seven times between Hong Kong and the UK since 26 February. All of this is a strain on his time as he seeks to strike a delicate balance between his work life and football.
“It’s tough. Even last night, we were doing sets in goal and I did less sets just because I didn’t prepare right,” he said. “I was a bit dehydrated, I had two meetings in Kowloon and I had to come back [to Hong Kong Island] in my suit and my tie, so I was running around all time. [By the time] I got to training, I was like, fuck, I’m really dehydrated just cause I couldn’t get the water in for what I was doing and it was boiling hot.
“The thing is, in the First Division it was fine because I barely needed to bring my gloves some weeks and we’d win 5-0. Whereas, if you’re playing Kitchee on the weekend it’s a massive difference. It can be frustrating that I can’t train to my maximum to be even better, but I’m just doing the best I can.”
Asked how he manages to compete at a top flight level while being the CEO of his company, Toomer admitted that it was a challenge.
“Sometimes there isn’t a balance really,” he answered, between football and work. “Luckily for me, football brings a social element as well so I don’t need to go out and meet friends. A lot of my work is taking people out, you know, I’m client-facing a lot.
“The thing is, I’d love to train every day. I’m 31 now, I’ve got a few knocks, a few injuries, but I know that if I was training every day, then I’d be so sharp, but obviously I can’t. On top of that, I can’t rest as well. So, literally, we train, I go to the office, I work, I go home. I can’t go for a massage, I can’t go for a long swim, I can’t go to the physio. I put my work shoes on and then I get blisters, but I still train.
“It’s the small things that are really tough, like nutrition. Sometimes I just eat on the go, sometimes I forget to eat a lunch. It’s tough.”
Toomer only trained once a week in the Yau Yee League and twice a week in the First Division. But this season, HKFC plan to train four times a week in addition to a recovery session.
All of this is part of the club’s desire to cut down on the gap between them and their rivals higher up in the table. For his part, Toomer never misses a training session as football provides him with some relief during his busy work schedule.
“I’m really lucky, I’ve got great support behind me which is actually the key,” he said. “So, I’ve got a really good coach, I’ve got a really good community, and when I’m there at football, I’m at football. I haven’t got my phone on me. I’m present, I’ve got the ball, and I’m grateful for it.
“I’ve got a great missus as well. We hardly see each other. We’re both up in the morning – she’s at work and I’m off either training or working. And then, I get back at 10 o’clock at night and either I’m making up for the time playing football or training.
“Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I come down [to the team’s training sessions in Happy Valley] and I’m like, ‘Fucking hell, how am I going to train today? I should be on a call, I should be doing this, I shouldn’t even be in Hong Kong’ half the time. But I think that helps me; I think that’s an advantage to be honest because I just see it as something to be grateful for.
“That’s why, on a gameday, I just think, ‘Sod it. I could be a million places but I’m here.’”
Of all his achievements in life, Toomer knows that he will forever be known for the memorable equalizer he scored against Resources Capital last season. The goal, which earned Toomer the Goal of the Year Award, has been watched over 111,000 times on the Facebook page of the league’s official broadcaster.
“To be honest, it still brings me joy,” he admitted, gleefully. “When I watch it, it just gives me a big smile and I just think, ‘That’s just brilliant’. Obviously, there’s a lot of luck and blessing in there, but there’s a lot of hard work in there as well.
“I’ll go a couple weeks without watching it, and then I’ll watch it, and it’ll be like euphoria.”
The goal came at a crucial moment in the game as the club were 1-0 down to RCFC heading into stoppage time. As Toomer recalls, the goal relieved some frustration for the team who felt that they were the better team for two-thirds of the match.
“That was a big game for us, and we were in control of the game up until when we missed the penalty in the 60th minute,” he said. “We missed that penalty and RCFC were all over us. They score, they get Martin sent off with six, seven minutes to go, and you can feel the whole atmosphere change in that last 30 minutes. It just seemed like the game was dead.
“Then we got the corner [in the 96th minute] and I remember looking at Tony and going like this [gesturing forward]. And he was like [shrugging]. I get it, the game was gone…so I started going back to my goal. And then I just turned around and I just ran. I just sprinted.
“All I remember is using someone as a decoy and then Alvin [Siu] just kicking the ball, and I remember ducking to the ball post on my own. The next thing I know, I look up and the ball was just in the air behind me. Then I remember just being present and just turning my body, and I remember feeling my laces on the ball, and watching the ball go over [the defender’s] head. Then I was like, ‘What just happened? That was just crazy’.
After Toomer’s big moment went viral, various online outlets such as 433 and Goalie Daily have either reposted the video or have reached out to him for an interview. He capitalized on his new found stardom by starting a personal Instagram account for the first time, and he continues to be amazed by the amount of people who have seen his goal.
“People come up to me on a weekly basis when we’re training,” he said with a wide smile. “Old school friends, who have seen it at the pub, told me ‘Freddie, I thought you quit football ages ago!’ My client’s kids in America were like, ‘The TikTok video [of the goal] has 10 million views. You’re famous!’
“Literally, all corners of my life have seen it. It’s amazing how it’s reconnected old people in my life, and I’m sure there’s other people who’ve seen that haven’t contacted me. I was actually out Saturday night and some guy came up to me and said he’d seen it – and he was from Birmingham!
“It’s incredible, it’s amazing, and I’m so grateful for it. I’ll have it on my headstone!”
HKFC were the surprise team of last season, finishing 6th – their highest table finish since 1948-49. The club were in the top half of the table for most of the season, but ran out of steam near the end, winning only one of their final nine matches in all competitions.
Toomer insists that fans should not lose sight of the fact the club remains semi-professional and this context is important.
“You can’t just look at the league table because, obviously, it’s a small league,” he said. “Look at our points: the fact that we got 26 points – that is insane. I remember Tony saying that our points target was ten and people were like, ‘That means you’ve got to win three games, I don’t see that happening.’ If you look at it in that respect, [last season] was a huge success.
“But yeah, there was a tail off last year. I think a collection of small things [happened]. We had a lot of Sapling Cup games in that nine-match run…the Sapling Cup is a bit of a write-off for us, we don’t win [those games], we play our youngsters. [There were] injuries, tiredness…all part of the evolution.
“Some in the team have not been there before in terms having that pressure to win games later in the year. Maybe there were a bit of nerves in there, but I think mainly it was the injuries – we lost Léo, we lost Paulinho, and we lost Habib.
“Our midfield – we were relying on Emmet [Wan], who has been injury plagued his whole bloody life and he played every game, and he was knackered. Martin [Fray] was exhausted, Jack [Sealy] was exhausted, little Alvin…you know, these players who have given everything. Jean [Maciel] had half a knee. Our team was like the walking wounded, but I’m still proud of what we did.”
A big role in HKFC’s success last season was that the big clubs underestimated them – something that Toomer insists rivals admitted to him privately. The team often set up in a compact 4-4-2, conceding the lion’s share possession, while looking to hit other teams on the counter. Accordingly, teams adjusted their tactics against HKFC in the second half of the season which played a part in the club’s drop off.
Toomer concurred that the team needed to evolve the way that they play in response to the adjustments that rival teams have made. Besides adding players over the summer with professional experience, HKFC looked for players with certain skill sets that can diversify the team’s style of play.
“I think we’re going to have to [tactically evolve],” he said. “Obviously, I’m really close with Tony. I’ve spoken to him and we’re all in agreement that we would like to expand play better football.
“I’ve always said to the press that we’ve got good attacking players – we just weren’t that organized; we just weren’t that ready. We’ve got more ball playing players at the back now compared to last year. You need the right personnel to execute on a plan.
“But there’s got to be a balance to it. We don’t want to lose who are, which is a dogged, committed group of players that have a bit of a chip on their shoulder. But then, can we open up and use the quality that we have?
“I don’t think we should lose our directness either because I can kick the ball quite far and accurately. I just think we need to add a bit of variety. I still don’t think we should lose who we are. I don’t think we go, ‘Right, let’s scrap that because we failed a little bit towards the end.’ No, I think we should go, ‘We’ve got that [doggedness] better than any other team in the league. We’re together, we’re committed, we’re here, we can defend. Now, we’re going to do something different.’”
HKFC’s preseason started on 16 July which was perhaps the latest start of the 11 Premier League teams. This was due to the fact that many of the players have full-time jobs – once again, a reality that affects HKFC more than other clubs.
Fans may wonder then, how this team of bankers, teachers, and real estate salesmen were able to rise above and be the best of the rest last season? How is it that they are able to find that internal fire to motivate themselves when playing for little to no compensation?
For Toomer, all of this goes back to a winning culture that was developed when the club were in the First Division. It didn’t matter to the elder statesmen of the club such as Freek Schipper, Rob Scott, or Antoine Sahaghian, what the level of competition was – they found ways to challenge themselves. It doesn’t matter that those players have since retired – Toomer insists that the club’s mentality hasn’t changed.
“I still go back to 2017 and starting a winning culture,” he said. “Me, Freek, [Ghislain] Bell, Rob, Antoine – these guys were winners. Just winning, winning, winning. We’ve always set the expectation of winning, and obviously, that comes down to the manager. We’ve never really lost that.
“It’s just down to individual pride and how you come at things. Maybe it’s a typical Western way of looking at it – doesn’t matter who you’re playing against, you’re here to fucking win. You’re here to give your all. That’s the bottom line.
“I don’t care if I’m playing against Kitchee – they’re amazing, they’re a superb team. I feel privileged to have played against them, but I’m there to beat them. That culture has been built over a long period…it doesn’t happen overnight.”
Toomer considers himself settled in Hong Kong, but it took a while for him to get there. After working at his first job for six years, he left in 2018. The then 26-year-old took some time off and decided ultimately that he wanted to remain in Hong Kong, so he started his own company.
A year later, the city was rocked with social unrest. Toomer recalls that he spent many days in his Causeway Bay office without seeing any clients as many people tried to avoid the area.
Further troubles would come for Toomer.
“My brother passed away suddenly in December 2019, and then a month later we had COVID. So it was, like, double-wham for me, life turned upside-down,” he explained. “So that was a real de-stabler, and I was very much in limbo about what to do – whether to stay in Hong Kong or go home.
“I spent a lot of time at home, playing golf, being with family, not thinking about football at all. Then, I think football brought me back in, really. It gave me the appetite to go again, start up a business again, and start to head in the right direction.”
Toomer’s performances last season had fans pondering how he would fit into the Jörn Anderson’s Hong Kong squad if he were to naturalize. But the keeper wants to tamp down on the speculation as he doesn’t see it as a realistic possibility.
“It’s very flattering that some of the fans have come up to me and asked me [about naturalizing], and some of the rumours going around have been quite funny,” he said. “Football is a funny game; anything is possible, [but] right now I just don’t see how it’s possible with my life and my career.
“Look, I’ve lived in Hong Kong 11 years. Hong Kong is my life; I’ve spent my twenties here. The opportunity to play in the national team, in the national stadium, in front of the fans [would] be amazing. I’m not closed off to it, but first you need to get a call [from the manager], I’d imagine, and I’d need to change my passport, etc. So, practically, I’m not sure on how that would happen.
“The game gives you up. In 4-5 years time, I’ll be out, I’ll be done. I wouldn’t rule it out. But as far as I’m concerned, Hong Kong is my home, I love Hong Kong. It’s given me so much, so there is something in my head about representing the city and that would be incredible.
“I don’t see it happening, ever. But I would never rule out something as significant as international football.”
For now, Toomer’s focus is on the upcoming season. He says that the squad have got to remain humble as they have to win anything.
He remembers vividly of a glowing newspaper article that was written about him when he was a 17-year-old. The then-teen aged Freddie believed his own hype, and his performances suffered in the months that followed as he had become overconfident.
Even after a league record point total for the club and a Fans’ Player of the Year award for him individually, Toomer still believes that the best is yet to come. After finishing the season with multiple injuries to his groin, elbow and knee, he’s taken the offseason to work on his conditioning. He says that staying injury-free this season is his number one goal.
Another of Toomer’s stated goals this season is to avoid travelling back to the UK during the season. The goalkeeper knows that it will be difficult, but he hopes that he can adjust his schedule so that it won’t happen in-season.
After spending most of the past decade catching flights, Toomer hopes that this season he can stay grounded.