Happy Valley AA: Hong Kong Football’s Sleeping Giants

Happy Valley Athletic Association are a club who haven’t been short of success over their 65-year history. Still Hong Kong’s fourth most successful club, they have six top flight titles to their name with the latest of those coming as recently as 2006. However, during the 2013/14 season, the club was rocked by six of their players being arrested on suspicion of match fixing by the ICAC, leading to them being suspended by the HKFA. They then suffered a rapid decline in their status, sinking all the way to the Third Division, the fourth and bottom tier on Hong Kong’s football pyramid. But now the team seems to be putting the ‘Happy’ back into Happy Valley, and with new financial backing and after securing promotion to the Second Division, it may not be too long until these sleeping giants of Hong Kong football awaken once more. Jeff Hardbattle sat down with Team Manager Christopher Lo Koon-ming to chat about the club’s resurgence and their brighter future.

After finishing as runners-up in the Second Division (then the second tier), the 2013/14 season was supposed to be a year for Happy Valley to establish themselves in Hong Kong’s top division with just a year to go before the establishment of the Hong Kong Premier League. After all, with a rich history such as theirs and a with a loyal and passionate fan-base, there wasn’t much not to be optimistic about. But the season turned into a nightmare after six of the club’s players were arrested for match fixing, and the club were barred from carrying out their remaining fixtures in the season, leading to their eventual relegation back to the second tier.

“It was a huge disappointment to us all when the club were suspended back then”, said Team Manager Christopher Lo. “Because of the incident, our club lost all of its sponsorship and investors. We fell from being a very successful professional team to an amateur team in what seemed like a very short space of time”.

Indeed, the club proceeded to finish bottom of both the First Division and Second Division in the following two seasons, sinking to the Third Division for the first time since 1968. But since then the team have found a new lease of life, as Christopher Lo explained. “We were in a very desperate situation after being relegated to the Third Division, but we now seem to have found a way out of the tunnel. We have been able to obtain new sponsorship, and our chairman Chen Zhi-shi is so positive and enthusiastic about the club’s future”.

Happy Valley AA’s chairman, Chen Zhi-shi, runs a holding group involved in infotech, financial investment and sports. A long time admirer of the team, he was introduced to them by him being a friend of a now former coach at the club, and eventually decided to take over the reigns in what is a sadly very rare occurrence in the lower leagues of Hong Kong football.

Under his and current coach Sham Kwok-pui’s stewardship (the latter being a former Hong Kong international and South China player), Happy Valley now sit top of the Second Division and are undefeated in eleven games played at the time of writing. The team also spent time with EFL League One side Charlton Athletic this month, further giving them the impetus to succeed on the domestic front.

“I think a large part of our recent success is down to the quality of the players we now have at the club”, Christopher continues. “Of course, a good coach can always steer the team in the right direction, but in the lower divisions without a talented squad, even Pep Guardiola would struggle!”

Former Hong Kong U23 player Ngai Pok-keung netted a staggering 17 times in the team’s promotion charge last season, and has netted a further three times since moving up a league. His team mate Lai Ming-lai, is currently joint second league top scorer with six goals to his name, and there is definitely an overriding sense of ambition at the club and with the staff and players associated. “Our aim is to get back to the Premier League for the 2019/20 season, meaning that we would need to be promoted every season”, states Christopher.

Questioned further on whether there was a sense within the team that it was their responsibility to restore pride at the club, Christopher was in no doubt as to the answer. “The answer to that is 100% yes. We are one of Hong Kong’s most successful and historical clubs, and we feel very proud that many of the region’s most outstanding talents between the 1970’s all the way to the early 2000’s played for us. We absolutely feel that it is our duty to restore faith in this club, and move forward to a new future”. It certainly seems as though it may not be too long before Happy Valley are back at the forefront of Hong Kong football once again.

offside.hk would like to thank Christopher Lo as well as all of the staff and players at Happy Valley Athletic Association for their time and for making this interview possible.

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