Changes afoot as lower divisions look set to restart

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20 teams in the Third Division. Another suspension for promotion and relegation. Get the latest on the situation down in Hong Kong’s lower divisions.

After three months of no football, professional clubs returned to live action last month with the resumption of the restart of the Premier League. Now, with the top flight now back in full gear, some may question when the same can be said of Hong Kong’s lower divisions where several notable ex-Premier League players are currently plying their trade in hopes of catching the attention of top flight scouts.

Truth be told, many lower division sides resumed training soon after the Leisure and Cultural Services Department reopened all venues to the public on 19 February. In light of this, the Hong Kong Football Association’s Board of Directors discussed the matter of restarting the lower division seasons at their meeting last Friday.

Offside has obtained a copy of a memo sent to clubs – dated 1 March – in which the HKFA spells out their plans for the lower divisions this season and going forward. In it, the organization plans to shorten the remaining schedules for each of the lower divisions due to time constraints. The HKFA are aiming to conclude the season within the month of June.

The Second and Third Divisions will resume on the weekend of 20 March, whilst the First Division will resume a week later on the weekend of the 27th. Once the leagues resume, their formats will be changed to a single round-robin format.

Results from prior to the season’s stoppage will be carried over and a final table will be declared once each club has faced every other club in their division once. Depending on the number of matches played before the pause, teams will have somewhere between 12 to 13 matches left on their dockets.

Should the season be paused once again, no final table will be declared for any league in which a single round-robin could not be completed.

As a consequence of the shortened season, the HKFA will not implement promotion and relegation for the second straight season. The organization stated in the memo that the Board “took account” of the fact the season had yet to be completed before coming to its decision. All participating teams this season shall be allowed to keep their place in their respective divisions for the 2021-22 season.

Former Rangers man Lai Lok-yin now plays for First Division title contenders North District. (Credit: North District)

The announcement which will have, arguably, the biggest impact on local football is one which concerns the lowest rung on the pyramid.

The Board decided on Friday that the Third Division will be expanded to 20 teams next season, up from the current 16. Additionally, in order to account for the increase in the number of teams, the Third Division will employ a single round-robin format going forward, ensuring that teams will play no more than 19 league matches per season.

This move is not without precedent as the Third Division used to follow the same format in the days when district teams and non-district teams competed in separate leagues. The Third Division “A” as it was called consisted of the latter group, and routinely featured more teams than the Third Division “District”. However, at 20 teams, this would be the largest field of teams in any of Hong Kong’s leagues since the 2009-10 Third Division.

Although the motives were not confirmed, it is suspected that there is a desire on the part of the HKFA to open a pathway to any clubs which may have wished to enter the league system this season or next. Because clubs which finish in the bottom places of the Third Division are banned from participating in the following season, and because relegation has been suspended, there would have been no other way for new teams to enter unless an existing club were to drop out.

Pak Hei, who were founded by current Resources Capital Director of Football Ho Shun-yin, had planned to enter the league system next season as a condition of receiving district team status from the Tai Po District Council. It is expected that the club will be among the new arrivals in next season’s Third Division.

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