Mired in financial difficulty, Happy Valley have confirmed what many in the football community knew was inevitable. The cause of their demise is salary arrears, which is quite ironic as their boss had blasted Dreams FC in the past for doing the same.
Happy Valley have withdrawn from the Premier League, dropping the total number of clubs in the top flight to seven. If no clubs from the First Division are promoted, this would be the smallest field of clubs to compete in the top flight since the 2001-02 season.
In a short statement posted just after 6:00 pm on Monday evening, the scandal-plagued club thanked those who have helped the club past two seasons as well as their fans. However, they stated that “after careful consideration, management have decided not to compete in the 2021-21 Premier League season.”
After returning to the top flight in 2019, Valley have endured a season to forget in 2020-21, often making the headlines for all the wrong reasons. The club were temporarily suspended from play in February after failing to pay their insurance premiums in a timely manger. The following month, player Lam Hin-ting and head coach Pau Ka-yiu were accused of acts of sexism towards female referee Gigi Law. The pair were later found guilty and banned 10 matches each in according with FIFA regulations.
Though what did the club in at the end were their salary arrears. Valley boss Chen Zhishi’s business has suffered as a result of the pandemic which in turn, has handcuffed his ability to move funds from his mainland bank accounts into the club’s coffers. Reports first emerged of arrears at the club in April 2020 but these were believed to have been resolved once training briefly resumed in July 2020.
When the club were banned from play in February, it was revealed that players had not received any salary since the start of the season. After the club’s season finale on 30 May, Poon Man-tik, Valley’s director of football, conceded that the club had yet to resolve their debts and that he would need to sit down with the boss to discuss the club’s plans.
Poon: Next season’s direction still unknown
In speaking with the media, Poon expressed that the decision to withdraw from the Premier League was a difficult one for the club.
“A lot of things have happened to us that caused our fantastic start to the season to fade, but the players gave it everything they had until the final match,” he affirmed, “Even until today, we wanted to remain the Premier League. But unfortunately, the pandemic has affected everyone, not just the football industry. We had no choice except to come to the decision we made [to withdraw].”
Happy Valley’s direction next season is still unknown according to Poon. The director explained that the club first needed to meet with the HKFA and the heads of the Athletic Association before determining whether the club will self-relegate into the First Division and whether any of the current players can be retained.
Poon stated that although he and Chen were still working to resolve the back pay issues, all player contracts had expired on 30 June and thus, the players were free to move elsewhere. It has been confirmed previously that centre-backs Yip Cheuk-man and Luciano have already signed with Resources Capital and Southern respectively, but Poon said that the club may need to assist a portion of their other players in finding new clubs.
Despite their challenges off the pitch, the director still believes that it was a successful one on the pitch for Valley. “We were able to provide a lot younger players with opportunities and allowed them to attract attention from other clubs,” he said. “In all honestly, we’ve achieved our objective and we hope that, at the appropriate time, we will return to the Premier League.”
Salary arrears a stunning about-face for Chen
In the past ten years alone, Happy Valley have been promoted and relegated four times each. However, the most humbling of stories for the club may be the fact that they have encountered arrears.
When the club returned to the top flight in 2019, Chen fancifully described a three-year plan for the club that involved the investment of $12 million a year and plans to use as many locally trained, young players as the backbone of the squad as possible.
“We must avoid arrears at all costs,” he said at the time, in a shot across the bow at Dreams FC who had been embroiled in their own arrears scandal the season before. “If you say you want to develop players, but you can’t pay them on time, that is not development.”
Quite ironic, indeed.