All in the Family: 20 years of Tai Po (Part 2)

A peculiar aspect of Tai Po is the club’s legends are truly legends in their years of service to the club. Such loyalty has been tested over the club’s 20-year history through championships and relegation – yet it’s a loyalty that endures.

Nestled in a semi-secluded area of Tai Po, immediately south of the MTR tracks which carry the East Rail line, sits Pun Chung Village. It is walled village with many houses not more than three storeys tall, a stark contrast to the towering monolith that is the Tai Po Hui Market building across the train tracks.

Just a short distance from the tunnel which connects Tai Po Hui Market to the village, Chan Yuk-chi stands at the door of the Tai Po Pun Chung Community Education Centre. As the interview begins, he walks back inside the building, which was once formerly home to the Tai Po Pun Chung Public School. Tai Po Football Club’s headquarters are located here in a converted classroom, and the only room in the former schoolhouse which belongs to the club.

Inside the room, one can be forgiven if they had assumed that an earthquake had recently struck the area. There are boxes – both open and unopen – some strewn across the room, while others are stacked nearly three quarters of the way to the ceiling. There are chairs, some stacked on top of each other, while others seem to exist only for the purpose of allowing other items to be stacked on top of their seat. There are also various bookshelves here, most of which contain not books, but an assortment of shopping bags which a passerby would assume were full of rubbish yet to be disposed.

In short, one could describe the state of the club’s headquarters as a complete mess.

But to a Tai Po supporter, the room is a shrine to the club’s history. On top every bookshelf are trophies that the club have won in their two-decade history, from the men’s team, to the women’s team, all the way down to the youth levels. In every available space atop the shelves, there is a trophy. There are simply too many to count, but each tell a piece of the club’s history.

On all four sides of the room, there are pennants hung of nearly every opponent which Tai Po have had the pleasure to cross paths with on the pitch. There are pennants from domestic clubs, but also those from Vietnam, Thailand, and mainland China among others, each telling a story in the club’s history.

Chan Yuk-chi (Credit: Huen Ka-man)

Chan is not nearly as old as the former schoolhouse. However, like the building, he has deep roots in this part of Hong Kong.

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve lived in Tai Po and I attended kindergarten here,” the former central defender stated. “I have deep affection for Tai Po.”

Part of the inaugural class of players who joined when the club were formed in 2002, Chan stayed with the team throughout the entirety of his 15-year career before retiring in 2017. In between those years, Chan won five trophies with the Greens, was the club’s captain from 2013-2017 and served as a torchbearer for the 2008 Olympics. After retiring as player, he helped Tai Po win the Premier League as an assistant coach in 2018-19.

Chan’s first experience with football came during his third and fourth grade years. But like many, he never dreamed that it would be possible for him to be a professional player. Even though Tai Po were promoted to the top flight in 2006, Chan did not immediately decide to turn pro. Instead, he continued his studies at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology where he majored in Computer Science.

He changed his mind as he neared graduation, telling Oriental Daily in 2010, “Most of my classmates became programmers after graduation, but to be honest, I don’t have much interest in this. I’ve devoted myself to being a professional footballer after graduating, and I hope that I can learn more from the coaching staff in the coming years. I hope to teach the children of Tai Po how to play football after I retire.”

Looking back on his decision today, Chan affirmed that he had no regrets about turning professional.

“It’s true that I didn’t have thoughts about playing professionally at first,” he said. “But when it became a reality that we would be going up to the First Division [in 2006], and there was an opportunity to become a professional, that’s when I asked myself, ‘Why not?’ Of course, we all know that being a professional footballer or athlete, in general, may not be a wise decision in Hong Kong. But when I think about my time at Tai Po, I was able to experience a lot of things that ordinary people wouldn’t be able to experience.”

At this point, one of Chan’s closest friends and another of Tai Po’s legends enters the room. Lui Chi-hing, who now a member of the coaching staff for the first team, sits down on the couch next to his former teammate.

Like Chan, Lui is also a native son of Tai Po, having lived in Fu Shin Estate during his childhood. It was on the streets of Tai Po where the two met playing football, and later, both attended the same high school and joined the Rangers academy together. Chan and Lui were barely 18 years old when they joined Tai Po ahead of their maiden season and they have remained a part of the Greens 20 years later.

“We’re two of the only three people from that first squad who are still here,” Lui said. “Some have left because they wanted to make a living while the rest of them left because of injuries. Some of those who were injured years ago did not remain part of the football community after they left.”

There were growing pains for the Greens after joining the top flight in 2006-07. The club lost its first four matches of the season and did not pick up their first win until their sixth match against lowly HK08.

The physical demands were greater in the professional ranks, so much so that Chan recalled struggling at halftime during the club’s fourth match against South China. After the early matches, management decided to sign a couple of foreigners to strengthen the team and the club’s fortunes turned around. Tai Po finished the 2006-07 in 7th and followed that up with a 3rd place finish the year after, though the club narrowly missed out on silverware after dropping the FA Cup Final to Citizen.

Tai Po would come back stronger in 2008-09 and win that season’s FA Cup Final over Pegasus, clinching their first ever trophy. However, the realities of a being a district team would soon start to show. Lee Hong-lim, the younger of the talented Lee brothers on the team, was poached by Pegasus midway through the season. Older brother, Lee Wai-lim, stayed with the team until the end of the season, but after winning the Footballer of the Year award, he attracted the attention of South China, who he would later sign with.

Compared to the big boys, Tai Po operated on a more austere budget. This meant that the club could not afford to pay its players full-time salaries, meaning that many players worked part-time jobs. For many years, Chan served as both a player and a secretary for the club.

“For professional players, this is not a good thing [to work two jobs]. When players on other teams were heading home to rest after training, I was doing administrative work,” the former captain said. “But there’s nothing you can do. When funds are limited, the club may not be able to hire more people.”

Lui Chi-hing (Credit: Tai Po)

Until the 2009-10 season, Lui was another member of the squad who worked two jobs. The midfielder had torn his ACL during a youth league match for Rangers and had left football before he joined Tai Po.

“The football industry was at a low tide at the time. Players like me, who were just starting out, were making a couple thousand dollars a month,” he recalls, speaking of the lamented ‘Ice Age’. “A lot of elders that I knew persuaded me to change professions.”

Lui found a job as a merchandiser, which involved frequent travel between Hong Kong and mainland China. His daily schedule would sometimes involve going to training at night, travelling to China the next morning, and returning to Hong Kong in the evening for training. Although Lui later limited his training to two sessions a week, he acknowledged that this put him at a disadvantage to other players.

“I didn’t get enough rest and that caused my performances to be inconsistent,” he admitted. “For a professional footballer, the sport is all about concentration, and if a player has to split their time between jobs, that’s bound to affect their performances. However, at the time, there wasn’t enough money in the sport to afford the players financial security.”

4 May 2013 is a day that will forever live in infamy for Tai Po. The Greens had entered the final match day of the season in eighth – one point above Citizen and Sun Hei, the two teams beneath them.

Tai Po had what seemed on paper to be a relatively easier match up against sixth-placed Yokohama FC (Hong Kong), whereas Citizen and Sun Hei were to take on Kitchee and South China, the two clubs placed second and first respectively. The matches between the six clubs ebbed and flowed, but in the end, upsets victories for Citizen and Sun Hei, and a late equalizer by Yokohama condemned the Greens to relegation.

It was a shocking blow for the club who had spent seven consecutive seasons in the top flight and had won their first Senior Shield just four months earlier.

“It’s hard to accept, even though it’s been years,” Chan stated, with a sober stare. “Before the match, we were the one’s with the lowest chance of being relegated, but then we were relegated with the last kick of the ball…We never imagined that it could happen.

“For a while, I didn’t know if the club would continue because we were going from a professional league to an amateur league. I was worried that we fall into a spiral of one relegation after another.

“I was in a dark place. I wondered ‘How could this happen to us?’ Because, we’re a district team, we feel the weight of the district every time we go into battle, and I felt that we’d let them down. But I’m glad that [the fans] stuck with us.”

Lui concurred with this sentiment and admitted that he still remembers how the sting of being relegated felt. “In the [Yokohama match] we were ahead, then we were pegged back. We were ahead again, then we were pegged back again. The emotional rollercoaster was intense,” he remembers.

“What made me most sad was that this club was built by a group of kids who played their way up to the First Division and took them to the top. It was like everything that we had built together, as brothers, was destroyed. The way it ended made me sad.”

A late equalizer by Yokohama FC left fans stunned as the Greens were relegated back into the Second Division. (Credit: Tai Po)

It is at this point the third member of the group enters the room. Sze Kin-wai is a Tai Po original, having joined the team in 2002 from Rangers’ youth ranks, much as Chan and Lui did. But even though Sze’s career never quite hit the heights of his fellow mates, he is the only member of the trio who remains an active player at the Premier League level.

During the 2012-13 season, Sze had decided to take a year’s sabbatical and spent most of the season abroad in Australia. He had planned in advance to return to Hong Kong on 4 May, but he could only watch from the stands as his brothers toiled on the pitch.

“If anything, I think being relegated only brought the team closer together because everyone had the same goal of getting this team back where it belonged,” Sze recalled. “Tai Po are a district club and we on the team were like a big family. Even the foreign players – who didn’t grow up playing together like myself, Yuk-chi and Chi-hing – they were able to integrate quickly.”

Sze Kin-wai (Credit: Tai Po)

Tai Po’s management team were equally determined to rebound immediately and return to the top flight. ‘Green’ll be back’ became the marketing slogan of the team in the days after the relegation and soon, became the rallying cry that the players would aspire to.

“After we were relegated, management immediately did what they could to keep the squad together,” Lui said. “They told us to aim for promotion and that relegation did not mean that we all had to go our own separate ways. They told us that we would be back [in the top flight] next season.”

There are, perhaps, few tests of loyalty in football greater than relegation. Some of the squad’s core players did leave over the summer of 2013 in order to remain in the First Division but many others stayed. For Chan, Lui, and Sze, there was never any doubt in their minds that they would stay and help the team.

“I never once thought about transferring,” Chan stated bluntly. “Tai Po aren’t just a club to me – it’s a club that means everything to me. None of us wanted Tai Po to drop even further down and we were all determined to get promoted back.”

The squad trained three times a week – which was “a lot” for a lower division side according to Chan – but due to the strength of their squad, their opponents often brought their best game against Tai Po.

Tai Po players parade the FA Cup around the streets of the neighbourhood after their victory in 2009. (Credit: Tai Po)

Going in the final matchday of the 2013-14 season, the Greens found themselves at the opposite end of the table from the previous year. Tai Po were second – a point behind leaders Wong Tai Sin – whom, as fate would have it, were their opponents on the final matchday.

As only the champions of the Second Division were guaranteed promotion, the match served as a de facto promotion final for the right to play in the top flight next season.

“Kwong Fuk Park was completely packed. Fans were standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the touchlines,” Lui recalled of the scene.

Tai Po led by two goals at halftime, but Wong Tai Sin refused to go away quietly. They pulled one back midway through the second half and continued to push the home side deeper and deeper. But the Greens remained resilient, and only when the referee blew his three times to signify fulltime, did the tension at Kwong Fuk Park ease.

Suddenly, from all sides of the pitch, hundreds of Tai Po supporters ran towards the centre of the pitch to celebrate with their heroes. The loyalty of the fans had been repaid by the effort of the players.

“When I saw so many of them running onto the pitch, I was touched,” Sze admitted. “Of course, we lost some support after we were relegated but our fans have always been important to us. We couldn’t have gotten promoted without them.”

“It reminded me of Serie A,” Chan remarked of the pitch invasion. “I felt more relief than joy when the final whistle came. We had put a lot of pressure on ourselves throughout the season and finally, that pressure had been released and we were going to go up as champions. It meant that all of the hard work that we had put in was not in vain.”

Tai Po fans rush the pitch after the Greens secured promotion on the final day of the 2013-14 season. (Credit: Tai Po)

The rest of Tai Po’s history will be well known to local football fans. Though the Greens were relegated again in 2014-15 – thus earning the distinction of being the first team to be relegated from the Premier League – they would be promoted again in the following season. Three years later, under the tutelage of head coach Lee Chi-kin, the club would become the first district team to win the Premier League title.

Chan and Lui, who retired in 2017 and 2018 respectively, served as assistant coaches under Lee. Both agreed that winning the league as coaches surpassed anything that they had accomplished as players.

“I used to be happy to win trophies as a player, but winning the league is way more meaningful,” Chan stated, proudly. “I won’t win a top flight title even if I played a second career, but I’m sure glad I was able to participate in [the 2018-19 title success].”

After the club self-relegated during the pandemic shortened 2019-20 season, Chan took over as head coach for two years and led Tai Po to the 2022 First Division League Cup title. Due to work commitments as a school teacher, he moved into an advisory role with the club while Lui remains as an assistant on the coaching staff.

As for Sze, the holding midfielder ruptured his ACL during the middle of the 2015-16 season and left football for five years. He found work doing as a swimming pool maintenance worker before eventually returning to Tai Po as an amateur in 2020, at the invitation of Chan. When the club asked him to stay on this season, Sze happily obliged although he continues to hold his maintenance worker job.

“We are still brothers,” Sze says of Chan and Lui. “We talk about everything together and even now, we still talk about the good and bad times we’ve experienced at Tai Po.”

After two decades at the same club, some may feel that it would be time for a change and to experience new things. For the three men, leaving Tai Po would seem unthinkable.

“I was offered a contract with another club after we were relegated in 2013 but I turned it down,” Lui recalled. “I’ve made so many friends playing for this club – friendships that were forged over a long time. There were so many memories and relationships that were built here that I couldn’t leave behind.”

“Every year, you’ll meet new people in this industry. Whether you find it boring is up to whether or not you love this job,” Chan said. “I’ve never had thoughts about leaving but everyone thinks that Tai Po and I are inseparable so it’s never come up.”

In the heart of Tai Po, a football club laid its roots. These foundations come not from the building which houses the club’s headquarters, but rather, the people like Chan, Lui, and Sze who work within them. Though the three men will age, much like the Pun Chung Community Education Centre, the fruits of their work will be enjoyed by the next generation of Tai Po players.

A collection of Tai Po’s various trophies. (Credit: Huen Ka-man)

All in the Family: 20 years of Tai Po (Part 2)
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