Chan Hiu-ming climbs towards the summit

Lee Man

As an avid hiker, Chan Hiu-ming finds that the most challenging routes are the most rewarding. Now, in his third season with Lee Man, backed by a lifetime of experience, he wants to scale the highest mountain yet – and lead the club into uncharted territory.

2021 has begun with the football season on hiatus, much like it was during the majority of 2020. Any optimism that the season could be resumed quickly has given way to simmering frustration as those in the game await the government’s verdict on a proposal to restart play under the same protocols which facilitated the restart of last season.

The government’s prohibition on social gatherings of more than two, coupled with the closure of football pitches, has meant that coaches have needed to be creative with ways to keep their players in shape. However, Lee Man head coach Chan Hiu-ming sees the challenges as another step in his journey – a journey which is important than the destination. Though he is displeased that the season is on pause, he remains steadfast in his confidence that Lee Man are in position to succeed once the green light is given.

The 45-year-old tactician wants to take the Bees further than they have ever gone this season. Beyond football, he wants to leave a lasting legacy at the club.

Chan observes from a distance as two of his players jog together around the track. This is as close to in person as he can get without running afoul of the law.

“The running exercises are broken up into pairs and intervals. Because of the gathering restrictions, we can’t have everyone train together,” he explained to Tai Kung Pao this week. “What we’ve done is ask the players to come (to the sports ground) at different times and then we have them run as pairs. Usually this should 30-45 minutes but because we’ve had to do it this way, training now takes 3-4 hours to complete.”

In addition to jogging, the coach revealed that the team will also gather for video calls where players are asked to conduct strength training or other high intensity exercises at home. Although he cannot keep an eye on his players 24 hours a day, he believes that Premier League players are highly disciplined and is not concerned that players will become infected.

“The pandemic has lasted almost year. By now, players should know what to do and what not to do,” he continued. “Plus, the lockdown restrictions currently in place are very stringent so there aren’t places for players to fool around. I’m not worried because they have no place to go after training except straight home.

“One thing to remember is that we’re tested every week in accordance with the HKFA’s protocols and no one has registered a positive test. I think that across the industry, we’ve been excellent at assuming personal responsibility and self-discipline.”

As the pause of the football season enters its fifth week, some in the football community, including Pegasus boss Steven Lo, have taken to social media to express their displeasure with the government’s delay in approving a return to play. Chan claims he understands the government’s decision to shutter its football venues but sympathizes more with those who are frustrated. He believes that the successful restart of the 2019-20 season presents a blueprint for how to safely resume the current season.

“I hope that everyone understands that what we do is not a recreational activity, but a profession,” the coach stated. “Even if football pitches are closed, our players are still exercising. When the government shuttered the stadiums, we all understood why. But as far as I know, horse races are still being run, the Sports Institute is still operating, so why are we being left out? After all, we are a professional sport, too.

“Why are we being denied such basic demands as the use of venues for training? Neither the HKFA’s Training Centre nor the government owned venues need to be opened to the public – we only need them to be opened to professional clubs. I don’t believe that this will increase the risk of infection because if they don’t provide us with designated venues, then we’re going to have to keep using the same venues as the general public as we need to maintain the fitness levels of our players.

“Professional football is no different than other professions. We can’t skip work. We’ve already demonstrated that the home quarantine bubble concept that was used last season works and I have full confidence that we can pull it off again. Professional sport hasn’t ceased worldwide because (other governments) recognize that professional sport needs to continue to operate.”

Followers of Chan on Instagram are aware that he is an avid hiker who regularly posts photographs of the scenic landscapes he encounters. The coach admits that hiking is one of his favourite hobbies to indulge in when he needs some relaxation away from work.

“I’ve enjoyed hiking since I was a child,” he said. “Obviously, since I’ve started coaching, I haven’t had as much free time to hike as before but, during the offseason, if I’m feeling good or if the weather’s good, I’ll go. What I really like is watching sunsets, particularly how the sun sets to different landscapes.”

Chan has hiked the hills of nearly every corner of Hong Kong, but his favourite trails are ones which are challenging and provide the most scenic view. “I visited Kowloon Peak last month but the route I took is not recommended for everyone,” Chan confided. “I enjoy viewing the breathtaking scenery that Hong Kong has to offer. For example, there are many animal-like rock formations, waterfalls and streams out there, waiting for people to discover.”

Chan on a recent hike near Lantau Peak. (Credit: Chan Hiu-ming/Instagram)

As for Chan’s climb up the coaching ranks, his journey began back in his secondary school days where he enrolled in a coaching course in Form 7 and later coached his alma mater’s football team. But it was during his university career where Chan’s love of sport, teamwork and competition was truly fomented.

From 1994 to 1997, Chan lived in Ricci Hall – an all-boys, sports-oriented dormitory at the University of Hong Kong. In his first year, the Lee Man coach was named assistant sports captain and recalled in previous interviews, the tremendous amount of time and energy that his fellow ‘Riccians’ devoted into winning each year’s Malayan Cup – the trophy awarded to the Inter-Hall men’s overall sports champions at HKU. At first, he did not understand why his dorm mates invested so much effort into the competition, but under pressure from senior students, he obediently followed their lead based on tradition.

If there was a singular event which led Chan to fully appreciate the importance of the competition, it was a tragedy which occurred near the end of his first year. With Ricci Hall near level on points with rivals St. John’s College heading into the season’s culminating event – the men’s field hockey championships – Ricci’s hockey captain was notified the day prior to the event that his mother had passed. Despite immeasurable personal grief, the captain insisted on participation, which culminated in victory for Ricci and the subsequent capture of the 1995 Malayan Cup.

“I learned a lot about leadership that day,” Chan remembers vividly. “Normal people would’ve been absent that day, understandably, but a captain knows that if he expresses defeat, the rest of his teammates will have their doubts too. He refused to quit that day because it would’ve been a waste of our dorm’s efforts over the course of the year. Every Riccian put the team above themselves and that’s why winning that year’s championship remains the proudest moment of my life.”

If Chan comes off as a romantic, it is because he wishes to maintain an element of idealism to his life. He recalls fondly how a former Ricci roommate traced the words “Last romance” on a windowpane– a quote which inspires him to this day.

“Post-graduation, everyone goes out into the world and all people think about is how to make money,” he said. “Your time in university is your last opportunity to enjoy romance without the burdens of everyday life. When a group of boys who had never previously met, work together towards a common goal and, regardless of the results, become brothers by the time they leave – this is a transformative experience that shapes boys into men.”

Chan with some of the trophies he collected at Ricci. (Credit: Chan Hiu-ming)

Are there lessons that the Premier League can learn from collegiate competition? Chan believes so. As he compares the declining attendances of local football matches to the fervent support at inter-scholastic track meets and aquatic competitions, the coach observes that the biggest difference between the two is emotional attachment.

“South China were a mainstay in local football,” Chan said. “After they self-relegated, it forced fans to re-evaluate whether the local game was worthy of their emotional investment. It’s worth asking why people should want to watch Lee Man? Why is it that Hong Kongers have such a strong attachment to English Premier League clubs located thousands of miles away? Why is it that the same level of attachment can’t be fostered towards local clubs?

“If fans wanted to watch the most talented players, they’d surely go and watch the top European leagues. For Hong Kong football to increase its visibility, clubs must develop an identity and create traditions. Only with time can clubs gradually build their image and become more recognizable to the average person. A club, its players and its fans must be together as one, share the same identity, support one another, strive for the same common purpose, and then – and only then – can local football reach another echelon.

Process over results.

That is what Chan hopes to impart on all of his players. It is another of the coach’s romantic ideals but one that he lives by. However, he has had to learn through failure, that his continued employment in professional football rests on a balance of adherence to personal philosophy about how the game should be played and a pragmatic quest for results.

Take the 2011-12 season for example when Chan was head coach of Pegasus. With the Horsemen two points up on Kitchee with three rounds to go, Chan’s team dropped six of their last nine available points, allowing Kitchee to pip them for the title. In addition to a second place finish in the league, the club also finished as runners-up in the FA Cup and the League Cup, leading local media to derisively label the club as “treble runners-up”. “If I had listened to my players’ feelings and been more open to other people’s ideas, perhaps the outcome would’ve been different,” the coach admitted.

After leaving Pegasus at the end of the season, Chan took some time off from management. He studied for and received his AFC Pro Diploma in 2016, before taking charge of the Macau national team the next year. He returned to club management in 2018 when he was hired as Lee Man head coach on the heels of a disappointing inaugural season for the Bees.

Lee Man won the Sapling Cup in Chan’s first season but the gaffer aspires for even higher honours. (Credit: Lee Man)

It is at Lee Man where Chan feels that he has finally found a club that shares his outlook on life. “It is easier to change your own mentality than that of 11 people,” club president Norman Lee told him after the club struggled during the 2018-19 season. The tactician took the sage words of wisdom to heart, deciding to adjust his playing style in order to improve results. Though the club captured its first silverware later in the season, Chan interprets the result as an evolution of his style rather than revolution.

“Having balance is important. Everything has its own value. Don’t give up your own happiness in pursuit of your goals,” said Chan, who began studying the teachings of Buddha in the past year. “External behaviours can change but never your principles. Otherwise, whatever your values were in the first place were never that important.”

Ahead of the 2020-21 season, Chan told reporters, “In the first season, we established how we want to play and recruited players who we thought would fit our system. Last season, no matter who you talk to, everyone can agree that we improved as a team.

“But now, as we enter our third season, not only do we want to improve but we also need to expect to win trophies. Everyone from the top brass, to the coaches, to the players expects a harvest this season. After three years, I agree that this is reasonable expectation.”

To help the team reach its goals, the Bees have signed Spanish centre back José Angel and Hong Kong international Tsui Wang-kit. Although some may see these moves as an acceleration of Lee Man’s timetable, to Chan, these signings were the result of careful planning and recruitment after the core of the team had been built.

“Squad building must be gradual. It is impossible to add high calibre players all at once,” he said. “We moved closer to our dream of winning the league last season, but we still believed that the results should’ve been better. During the restart, we identified areas of the team that needed to be strengthened so, as an example, we signed José because we believe his height and aerial ability will help us win more headers. It’s also in line with our tactic of playing the ball out of defence.”

José Angel (left) and Tsui (right). (Credit: Lee Man)

Still, some may argue that it was unnecessary of Chan to make his “harvest” remarks, which may lead to additional pressure on the backs of his players. The season has started off well for the Bees as they have secured a place in the Sapling Cup knockout phase. But in league play, Lee Man drew in their opener against Kitchee and lost to Eastern a week later.

“Maybe we dropped points because we were playing strong teams,” Chan said, reflecting on the league campaign thus far. “But you can see that our level is not far from where (Kitchee and Eastern) are. My players are in a positive mood in every aspect. We believe that after the season resumes, Lee Man will soon return to the top of the table.”

In Tsui, Chan sees a symbol of the club’s growth in stature as the full back, though only 23 years of age, has already played at a higher level than most Hong Kong players will ever play. “He’s still very young and he’s been praised by many in the game for his progress,” Chan said. “He has China League One experience and he only returned to Hong Kong due to extraneous circumstances. Last season, it was only the transfer rules which prevented him from playing in the restart (for R&F).

“(Tsui) is an integral part of the Hong Kong squad and at Lee Man, one of our objectives has always been to develop local players. We hope that we can provide a platform for him to improve and we believe that he can help Lee Man in return, so we see this as a mutually beneficial partnership.

“Just a few years ago, we would’ve never have been able to attract players with his ability to come to Lee Man because of how our stature compared to other clubs. But we’ve worked hard to change that, and now, talented players are confident that coming to Lee Man is the right step in their careers. This goes to prove that our efforts over the past two and a half years have not gone to waste. I think (Tsui’s signing) sends a positive and gratifying message.”

On top of the signings of José Angel and Tsui, the Bees have retained many of their foreigners over the past offseason. Yet, what gives Chan the greatest source of pride are the talented young players which he has helped develop as part of the club’s ethos.

“We can proudly say that Lee Man have invested a lot of resources into local players,” he stated, adding that his desire to develop local players remains unchanged. “When I watched Kenny (Cheng Siu-kwan) make his debut (against Iran), I was shaking. After the match, when I saw him pose for pictures with younger fans, I felt immensely proud because he is why our club exists. This is more important than results.”

Chan has not given up his dream of leading the Bees to their first league title. Even if Lee Man fail in their quest this season, he hopes that team will remember what was gained and what was lost during their ascent to the summit.

“I hope that 20-30 years from now, Lee Man will still be around and like Ricci Hall, the bonds that have been built between my players and my staff will last a lifetime,” he said.

Chan Hiu-ming climbs towards the summit
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