The HKFA took the long way. After they were dumped by Pegasus and Happy Valley, they flirted with Tuen Mun and North District and ended up with HKFC and a U23 team. But in the end, they got what they wanted: Eight teams in the Premier League.
First there was HK08.
Then there was Hong Kong Sapling.
Now, in 2021, a yet-to-be-named U23 team will become the latest HKFA development-oriented side to enter the top flight and make up the numbers.
HKFA CEO Joe Tam made the announcement official on Thursday afternoon soon after the board of directors gave their seal of approval. The club, whose name and head coach will be decided next week, will sign no more than five players over the age of 23, and use no more than three such players on the pitch at any time.
Moreover, the team’s addition means that even after the withdrawal of Pegasus and Happy Valley due to financial problems, the HKFA have managed to maintain the number of teams in the Premier League at eight.
“Our intention is to develop the next generation of Hong Kong players, which is why the spine of the squad will be under-23 players plus five overaged players,” Tam explained. “I hope that the experienced players can provide leadership in training U23 players, and in turn, this will provide a good platform for those players to represent Hong Kong or play for other clubs. I hope that these youngsters can become the future stars of Hong Kong.”
Although some in the football community were concerned that the team would do nothing for overaged players who remained unemployed, the CEO said that it was vital to include at least some overaged players in the squad.
“Firstly, the Hong Kong U23’s will travel to Japan for the U23 Asian Cup qualifiers in October. We anticipate that several members of that squad will come from (the Premier League U23 team) but we also need to ensure that there are enough players in the squad so that the team can continue to play domestically”, Tam continued. “Secondly, we want to provide a solution for the number of players who are overaged and remained unemployed, so this is like killing two birds with one stone.
“Again, the intention is to develop young players, but I think that allowing three players on the pitch to help guide those players is a good step. As a reminder to everyone, the HKFA will have a say in selecting who those overaged players will be. We won’t take these decisions lightly and we’ll only sign players who are experienced and can raise the level of training.”
The CEO revealed that the HKFA have already identified 23 to 24 players for the squad, including some who will be brought in on loan from other clubs. Though Tam said earlier that the HKFA would have a hand in the selection of overaged players, he later confirmed that the rest of the signings and any sponsorships would be managed by an independent entity, separate from the HKFA.
Tam added that the club will apply for membership within the HKFA, in accordance with competition regulations. Due to the tight timeline, the board also voted to extend the deadline for the club to meet Premier League club licensing criteria until after the start of the season and will drop the requirement for the team to operate an academy program. However, the CEO vowed that the team would “not be much different” from other Premier League teams, aside from these exceptions.
Ken Ng skeptical over U23 team
Only a day prior to the official announcement, Kitchee chairman Ken Ng called the concept “flawed” and expressed concerns about whether a U23 team would dilute a limited talent pool of players.
“If you assume that (the U23 team) will sign 30 players, and if they only sign U23 players, then it’ll stretch the talent pool thin. There simply aren’t enough U23 players capable of playing at this level.” he argued on Wednesday, at Kitchee’s open training session. “It’s not just me who’s saying this. More than one other club has expressed this same opinion to the HKFA, but let’s see what happens.”
Ng warned that Kitchee would be reluctant to loan players to the U23 team due to Sapling Cup commitments. He told reporters that he did not believe the conditions which existed when HK08 were around are the same as those that exist today.
“Back in the day, there wasn’t a Sapling Cup. There wasn’t a competition for young players to get minutes in,” the chairman said. “Presently, because of the Sapling Cup, every team has to come up with five or six players who can qualify as U22 for the purposes of the competition. It’s not that I don’t want to help them, but we need enough U18 players to compete in the Youth League and there aren’t many U22 players around who we won’t need for the Sapling Cup.
“If the team is approved, then we’ll have to decide what to do when the time comes.”
Relegation to be suspended for next three years
Tam confirmed on Thursday that relegation would be suspended for the foreseeable future, ensuring a level of stability for the U23 team, who will likely struggle on the pitch
“We hope that there will be teams who want to come up but we won’t force anyone to go down”, the CEO said. “The pandemic has had a huge impact on the local game, so for the next two to three years, we’ll freeze relegation to give ourselves time to heal.
“The U23 team isn’t a short-term project. It won’t be here one year and gone the next. This is going to be a sustainable medium-term project that will exist for at least the next three years. It’s my hope that in three years time, there will be 9-12 teams in the Premier League, and then we’ll be forced to make a decision about the future of this team.”