All in the Family: 20 years of Tai Po (Part 1)

Tai Po are one of 11 district teams who are celebrating their 20th anniversary this season. To mark this historic milestone, we revisit stories from the club’s formative years – as told by those who knew them best.

To label any club in Hong Kong as a ‘storied club’ is as much a dubious exercise as it is depressing. Afterall, if one were to bestow this label based on the amount of silverware in each club’s trophy room, then this exercise would reveal that some of the most storied clubs in the city no longer exist.

And, if one were to simply call any club with multiple decades of existence a ‘storied club’, then surely there would be more than a dozen clubs in Hong Kong with little to no trophy success who could deserve this moniker.

But if any district team should be described as ‘storied’, then by any measure it should be Tai Po. For this is a club who have won every major trophy there is to win, produced two Footballer of the Year award winners, and were the first district team to be promoted into the top flight. They are, as well, the only district team to have been relegated from the top flight thrice – most recently in 2020 due to financial difficulties.

While the story of the club’s cataclysmic rise under former head coach Lee Chi-kin has been well documented, the story of the club’s formative years – previous to the Kin era – is not as well known. 

To mark the club’s 20th anniversary, foundational members of the club were invited to tell the story of the Greens as they saw it. What was revealed is one of the remarkable histories of a club only two decades old. Their story is one of resilience, community, but above all, family. 

In 2002, the HKFA invited each of Hong Kong’s 18 districts to form a team and compete in the Hong Kong football league system. During the 2002-03 season, 11 district teams answered the call along with Hong Kong 08 and the Hong Kong Schools Sports Federation. Thus, the Third Division “District” League was born with Tai Po as one of its 13 founding members.

The responsibility of organizing a team to represent Tai Po District fell on the shoulders of Chan Ping, who is now the club’s general secretary, and Wan Koon-kau, who is now a vice-chairman of the Tai Po Sports Association. Wan was also the club’s head coach during their first season. 

“My brother-in-law [Wan] would take us to different competitions when we were kids,” recalls Wong Man-kit, a member of the team’s original class of players. “Some of the players on our squad had come from the academies of First Division clubs, including Lui Chi-hing, whom I’ve known since Fifth or Sixth Grade. All of the players were [Tai Po] residents, even [Hong Kong team record goal scorer] Chan Siu-ki, who was the younger brother of one of our friends. Even though he was much younger than us, we could already tell that he was an outstanding talent.”

From 2002 to 2012, the HKFA ran two parallel Third Division Leagues – the “District” League for district teams and the “A” League for everyone else. The top two teams in each league would advance the promotion playoffs where the champion of each league would take on the runners-up in the other league for one of two promotion spots. Tai Po would finish the season as runners up in the “District” League, but lost to St. Joseph in the playoffs. 

However, Hong Kong football is nothing without its quirks. As fate would have it, the Tai Po’s management worked out a deal over the offseason to loan St. Joseph’s club license and assumed control over two teams during the 2003-04 season. The newly re-branded Tai Po-St. Joseph would compete in the Second Division with most of Tai Po’s players while a new squad of players were recruited from the northern town of Sha Tau Kok to compete under the Tai Po name in the Third Division.

At the beginning of the season, Chan Ping hired Ho Ying-ngai to lead both teams. Ho was a former footballer himself, having joined Happy Valley’s reserve side at the age of 21. But, after finally breaking into the first team during the 1994-95 season, he decided to hang up his boots after the season at the tender age of 24. Ho had continued to play recreationally in the lower divisions until he received a cold call from Chan to head his Tai Po team.

Ho Ying-ngai (left) and Wong Man-kit (right). (Credit: Tsang Ngan-ping)

“To this day, I have no idea how he got my number,” laughs Ho, who had no prior coaching experience. “He told me that he wanted someone who could lead a group of youngsters, so I decided to accept the challenge. I’ve never thought of myself as much of a coach. Everything I knew, I had picked up from [former Footballer of the Year and Happy Valley head coach] Leung Sui-wing and [former Hong Kong international and Happy Valley player] Lo Kwok-wah during my Valley days, and I tried to impart their teachings onto the youngsters.”

After Tai Po-St. Joseph’s first match in the 2003-04 season, Wong said that he knew immediately that the team would struggle. “After we were promoted, it was clear that we weren’t good enough,” he recalls. “We didn’t have enough experience and it didn’t help that some players like Chan Siu-ki had left the team over the offseason.” The team finished the season second-bottom from the table with 21 points from 20 matches. They were able to stay up due to the fact that only the bottom team were relegated that season.

In stark contrast, the Tai Po team in the Third Division were performing brilliantly with their Sha Tau Kok brigade. Led by brothers Lee Wai-lim and Lee Hong-lim, the team finished top of the “District” League table and defeated JC Decaux and Kwai Tsing in the playoffs to win promotion to the Second Division.

This presented a conundrum for Tai Po’s management. Though it was legal for both teams to compete in the same tier, neither team was strong enough for the division. At the halfway point of the 2004-05 season, both teams found themselves in the relegation zone.

“We consulted with Chan Ping, as well as players such as Chan Yuk-chi and Lui Chi-hing about the situation. If were weren’t on the same page, neither team would be able to avoid relegation,” Ho said.

“It was all a bit like a TV drama,” Wong describes. “We just sat around the dinner table and decided right then and there which players would switch over the St. Joseph’s and which players would play for Tai Po.”

After reorganizing the team, Tai Po finished 9th out of 12 teams whilst Tai Po-St. Joseph’s finished bottom. At the end of the season, management decided to return St. Joseph’s license. Looking back on the decision to re-organize the two teams, Ho says, “It was the right decision because we had to save one of the teams. If we didn’t make the decision that we did, I can say for sure that Tai Po wouldn’t exist today.”

Brothers Lee Wai-lim (left) and Lee Hong-lim (right) from Sha Tau Kok were an integral part of Tai Po’s early history. (Credit: keymansoho)

When two squads are merged into a single team, there is always a worry that the two sets of players will not gel. Afterall, both Tai Po and Tai Po-St. Joseph’s had competed against each other in the same league and both squads were comprised of players from different neighbourhoods. But according to Wong, both the Tai Po gang and the Sha Tau Kok brigade quickly bonded over a mutual interest: drinking.

“At that age, we were all quite fond of drinking,” he said, with a mischievous grin. “We would often spend Saturday nights drinking so much that we’d have to ring each other up the next morning to wake up.

“I know some fans will point this and say, ‘Well, no wonder Hong Kong football is rubbish’ but don’t forget, we were only amateurs. We were playing in a Sunday League organized by the HKFA and only the top league was professional. Maybe it was only because we didn’t know each other that well that we had to bond with each other through alcohol.”

Ho, who was hearing the drinking story for the first time, responded by saying, “Well, you could’ve fooled me. You guys were certainly united on the pitch.”

Tai Po players bonded over drinking, according to Wong. (Credit: Tsang Ngan-ping)

Tai Po got off to an inauspicious start to 2005-06 season. Though the Greens picked up four points from their first two matches, their next two matches were both rescheduled due to weather. The latter of the two matches remains memorable for Ho as the turning point in the season.

“The fourth match against Eastern was an interesting one because we were playing at Shatin Sports Ground and we were 2-0 down,” the coach remembers. “But then the match was called off because of high wind and heavy rain. After that match, our season went quite swimmingly.”

The team went unbeaten over their first five matches until a 1-2 defeat at home to HKFC ended their run. The defeat left a sour taste in the players’ mouths as they felt that Football Club were their main title rivals that season.

“I felt that they were quite timid against the expats, and it was something I’d experienced myself [as a player]. I had warned them that they had to go into the match with the right mentality and not be scared,” Ho said. “But losing to them only made the team more determined to make things right in the reverse fixture.

“To prepare for the match, I arranged for the players to go train at Shek O Beach but they didn’t go into it feeling like it was a must-win. Their mentality was that, even if they couldn’t win, they wanted to at least close the gap.”

The result was that the Greens, who had no foreigners in their squad, played the Ante Grabo-led HKFC squad to a scoreless draw. Tai Po would finish the season as runners-up to HKFC, assuring the club of promotion to the First Division. Both Ho and Wong admitted, however, that they had begun thinking about their future plans well before the season was over. 

“I felt that we had a chance of going up near the midway point of the season,” Wong said. “At that point, we began to consider what would happen to us if the club were to switch to fully professional or semi-pro.”

Tai Po players celebrate winning promotion to the First Division in the 2005-06 season. (Credit: Tai Po)

Both player and coach committed initially to stay with the Greens as they embarked on their maiden season in the top flight. Wong decided to play professionally but Ho was not was able to let go of his day job.

“Chan Ping and I both agreed that it would be better for the team to find a full-time head coach,” Ho recalled, “That’s why we decided to hire [ex-Hong Kong 08 head coach] Chan Hiu-ming. At first, we were going to act as co-head coaches, but I had a day job which I couldn’t leave just for the sake of the club. It also became apparent that I didn’t have enough experience and know-how, so it was better for Hiu-ming to be the sole head coach.”

After the fourth match of the season in which Tai Po lost 3-2 to South China, Ho decided to step down.

Wong, too, did not stick around at Tai Po for long. At the end of the season, the winger – who was once a key part of the Greens – decided to draw the curtain on his professional career.

“I was 24 when I made my professional debut. I wasn’t even young by football standards,” Wong stated, bluntly. “Playing professionally was never a dream of mine as a boy, it was just an opportunity that fell into my lap. I’m happy to have given it a go but I don’t have regrets about leaving.” 

“I’ve always felt that he could’ve taken his game to another level had he stayed on,” Ho said, in response. “Maybe the reason I felt disappointment – even though he doesn’t – is because his experience was so similar to mine. It’s a pity that local football isn’t well supported. Even though he’s a decade younger than me, he had to make the same decision [to retire early] in order to make a living.”

Wong was one of a six of players who were instrumental to Tai Po during their early years, but whom departed after the 2006-07 season. Although this left a hole in the club’s core, it allowed others who had also been with the club for many years to step up.

District teams are full of stories such as Ho’s and Wong’s due to their deep ties to their community. To this day, Ho has never lived in Tai Po, yet he feels a strong attachment to the district because of football. It is the reason why he and Wong founded Tai Po Legends, a team where former players of Tai Po gather to play recreational football from time to time.

“I can still remember the names and faces of every player who was in the squad [during his tenure],” Ho insists. “Even though my role was minimal, I was just as delighted as the players were when they won promotion. 

“When we were promoted, it felt like a dream come true at the time. But now, I want to pass that dream onto the next generation. I hope that the former players who became coaches, such as Chan Yuk-chi and Lui Chi-hing, can continue to pass this dream on and win more trophies in the top flight.”

All in the Family: 20 years of Tai Po (Part 1)
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