Southern have parted ways with the only head coach they’ve known since their promotion to the Premier League. Here’s why.
Disappointed with his side’s elimination from the HKFA Cup on Monday afternoon, Ricky Cheng tried to remain upbeat. “There’s nothing you can do but congratulate Tai Po,” he told reporters. “We have to look forward, try our best in the league and put our focus on the Sapling Cup Final.”
Hours later, he left the club by mutual consent.
When reached for comment on Monday night, Cheng’s response was that results matter in professional sports and when the results are not satisfactory, it is normal for a club to make changes. Although he accepted the decision, he also said that he would leave it to upper management to explain the “real reasons.”
Cheng was on the hot seat
Hired in 2015, Cheng’s arrival at Southern coincided with the club’s successful application to promote into the Premier League as well as the start of the club’s “Five Year Plan” under sponsor Kwoon Chung Bus.
Despite being hired with the goal of delivering a trophy to the Aberdeeners, under Cheng’s management the club have never finished above third in the league. The club have qualified for the finals of the Senior Shield and the HKFA Cup once each under Cheng but were unable to win the big game when it mattered.
Armed with a $15 million budget – believed to be the largest in club history – big things were expected from Southern this season after the club remained in the title chase until the third to last round of last season. The club were able to recruit foreigners Travis Major and Kawase Kota from fellow Premier League clubs, as well as Hong Kong internationals Philip Chan and Chan Kwong-ho.
But after nearly five years in charge and never once leading the club to Asian competition, upper management became increasingly restless. Monday’s defeat in the HKFA Cup meant that Southern’s only path to Asia next season would be to win the league where they are currently four points back of leaders R&F, despite having played one extra game.
Post-match, Cheng tried to deny that the club ever had its eyes on Asia.
“The current climate is different than it was in years past,” he explained. “You have three or four clubs with massive budgets, some of whom have thirty odd players on their squad. This makes it really hard for us to compete.”
“We have to be realistic,” he said. “There is a big gap between the big clubs and Southern not just in our budgets but also in talent. So, we have to be clear about what our ceiling is in the league.
“Of course, we have a responsibility to try our best but with the talent at our disposal, it’s impossible to win every game. To expect to win every game is not fair to the players.”
In hindsight, Cheng appeared to have been directing his comments to upper management.
Coaches and players react to Cheng’s departure
In the statement confirming Cheng’s departure, Southern announced that Cristiano Cordeiro and Calvin Pui would be named as co-caretakers until the end of the season. Speaking with reporters at Southern’s training session on Tuesday morning, Pui expressed sadness to hear that Cheng had left.
“Ricky is the reason I joined Southern in the first place,” he recalled. “He’s a dear friend, a good teacher and I’ve learned a lot from him.
“Ricky gave everything he had to the club, the players saw that, but such is professional football. The club have invested a lot (of money) and expected results in return. It’s a pity that it came to this.”
Philip Chan took a more analytical approach to the news. He admitted that the players and the head coach were “not on the same page” which led to an erosion of trust between the two parties.
“Ricky’s system requires players with quick pace and acceleration (to launch counterattacks) but as a portion of the squad ages, they lose the stamina and technical ability to carry that out,” he mused.
“Maybe he couldn’t find the right players to fit his system. We had some players leave and new ones come in midseason who play a different way. The players and coaches were going in different directions tactically. I think this is the reason for our disappointing results this season.”
Chan ended by praising Cheng, saying that the coach had helped bring back his confidence. However, he described Cheng’s system as “rigid” and acknowledged that perhaps it was “time for a change.”
Pui noted that he would hold a team meeting with the players later in the week, but he ruled out any drastic changes in how the team would set up.
“The most important thing is to restore the players’ confidence,” he added. “There will be slight adjustments to our style, but Ricky laid down a foundation here, so no major changes are needed.
“This week we will meet with players and listen to everyone’s ideas. Then, together with Cris, (assistant coach) Sham Kwok-fai, and (goalkeeper coach) Marc (Gamon), we will make a joint decision as to our future direction.”
Analysis: Decisive action in line with Chan Man-chun’s character
Although some may view the decision as premature or hasty, Southern chairman Chan Man-chun has always been someone who likes to get business done early. Afterall, Southern is always among the first clubs to confirm all of their foreigners for the upcoming season. In December, when it became clear that Southern would not be called upon to replace Kitchee or Tai Po in Asian competition, he terminated the contracts of Nikola Komazec and Emmet Wan early.
The Aberdeeners are currently winless in four matches across all competitions, having been outscored 13-5 in the process. While this is indeed a poor run of form, one could surmise that based on how Chan operates, it merely provided him with the cover to rip the band aid off.
Cheng would have been up for for evaluation at the end of the season regardless, but this move signals that Chan had doubts about whether to continue with Cheng as his head coach. The fact that this season dovetails with the end of the club’s Five Year Plan allows the club to spin the move as a clean break.
Shortly before 7:00 pm local time in Hong Kong, Chan posted a graphic on his personal Facebook page which read, “Nothing in this world is eternal. Everything has a beginning and an end.” Two hours later, Southern announced that Cheng had left the club.