Happy Valley self-relegated at the end of last season due to financial difficulties. The team, which is back under the control of the Happy Valley Athletic Association, want a fresh start. But will fans forgive them or will they be forgotten?
At the conclusion of Happy Valley’s 2-1 defeat to Wong Tai Sin on Sunday, there were no boos from the crowd. And if there was any applause for the victors, it would mostly have come from the Templemen’s bench, rather than the sparse audience who attended.
Such is life in the lower divisions. Valley, who played before 2,200 fans in the Sapling Cup Final only five months ago, will now play in front of crowds of 60 people – on a good day. The club announced their decision to withdraw from the Premier League in July due to unresolved salary arrears and were subsequently approved to play in the First Division.
Players on last season’s squad say that they are owed $5.5 million collectively and mediation with the team’s former boss, Chen Zhishi, has only led to more broken promises about when payment will occur. Last Wednesday, 15 September, the players went back to the Labour Department and were granted a revocation of the part of their claim which was aimed at the Happy Valley Athletic Association. This will pave they way for the players to seek a court order to recover their wages through the Protection of Wages on Insolvency Fund, though one player admitted that the process could take a year and a half.
After Valley were promoted into the Premier League in 2019, the club was managed by Chen under his company Happy Valley Football Club Ltd. The management of the team has now returned under the umbrella of the Athletic Association and all staff who were with the club last season have since left.
In an interview with Inmediahk following the match, the team’s new head coach Chill Chiu seized on this fact to argue that this season’s squad was “completely separate” from last season.
“This season is this season. All salary arrears are the responsibility of the previous boss, so we’re not the same team,” he said, attempting to turn over a new page in the club’s history. Chiu, who has no prior head coaching experience, revealed that he was hired as head coach only two weeks ago and is singularly responsible for purchasing new kits, assembling the squad, booking pitches for training, and planning all training sessions.
According to the coach, the squad was assembled through personal connections, by asking friends to contact their friends, who may be interested in playing for Valley. He admitted that the squad had trained only once prior to the match on Sunday.
Unsurprisingly, Valley’s kits for the season have not yet arrived. Instead, the players wore off-the-shelf blue shirts on Sunday with the letters ‘HVAA’ screen printed on the chest where the club’s crest should have been emblazoned.
Of the 23 players on Happy Valley’s squad, only a handful have played professional football. One such player is Wong Yiu-fu, who joined the club after departing Sham Shui Po early last season. The 40-year-old is coming full circle in a sense, having trained with Valley’s academy during the late 90s. But, he denied that there was any feelings of sentimentality surrounding his return.
“A football team in Hong Kong is just that – a team,” he said, with a wry smile. “Other teams in Asia get to call themselves clubs because they have private residences and training grounds. All we have are facilities like Kowloon Bay Park, Kowloon Tsai Park and Po Kong Village Road Park. What do we have that would make one feel as if they’re a part of a club?”
Wong, however, echoed his coach’s plea for fans to separate this season’s Happy Valley team from the past.
“The bosses are different,” he continued. “If some fans want to look for something to whine about all the time then we don’t need those fans. The reality is that (in Hong Kong football) it’s possible for teams to have a different boss every year.”
Although Chiu acknowledged that Happy Valley’s reputation had been damaged by the arrears scandal, he was optimistic that the team could be competitive and change some minds with their effort.
“Our players are innocent. They just want to play football,” he said. “We don’t have much money, but I promise that that we will pay everyone on time, at the end of the month. Our goal to remain in the First Division at the end of the season.”
The real questions is, whether anyone will care?