Premier League new boys Resources Capital have committed themselves to playing an entertaining and tenacious brand of football, from the first team-down, regardless of results. Meet the men at the club who believe that their approach is the future of Hong Kong football.
The much-maligned Hong Kong Premier League has faced many challenges over the past year which have been complicated by the ongoing pandemic. The stop-start nature of the league – caused by government restrictions enacted to limit the spread of the virus – meant that the curtain did not fall on the 2019-20 season until October.
Along the way, there were clubs who withdrew from the restart, self-relegated, lost the endorsement of their district councils or folded altogether. With businesses across all sectors seeking to lower operational costs due to a slow economy, few are eager to sponsor Premier League clubs, leaving many professional players to seek refuge as part-timers in the lower divisions.
Yet, through the perpetual fog of nihilism and negativity that is Hong Kong football, there is an irrepressible fire which continues to burn. Truthfully, the fire had be lit years before, but it was not until August 2019 when people began to take notice. Because on a sultry summer day that month, atop the roof of their headquarters in Sheung Wan, Resources Capital owner Hanson Wong declared to all who were gathered that the club would apply for promotion at the end of the season – but only if they finished as champions.
Rarely do plans come exactly to fruition and with the lower division seasons paused since late January 2020, what remained of those seasons was ultimately cancelled in mid-April. But yet, in spite of the premature end to their title ambitions, Ho Shun-yin, the club’s Director of Football, insisted that Resources Capital would still apply for promotion. After the club were accepted into the top flight in June, Ho astonished outside observers when he announced that the club would not make many additions and elect, instead, to retain the majority of their squad from the second tier.
The early days of their top flight campaign have yielded very little in the way of results as the Pink Ribbons have only managed to avoid defeat in one of their first seven matches across all competitions. But the fire that is Resources Capital continues to burn as intensely as it ever has.
That fire is the desire of Wong to develop young players. It is the persistence of Ho to encourage local players to play a possession based, Spanish style of football. It is the hunger of the players – all but five of whom have never played in the top flight – to prove themselves in the Premier League.
That fire is the Resources Capital Way.
The year is 1992.
Out of interest, Ho Shun-yin enrols into an HKFA sponsored coaching course. As his luck would have it, Hong Kong would play host to the Fustal World Cup in November of the same year. Faced with the dilemma of attending a coaching class one night or buying tickets to a World Cup match, the coach was forced into the first big decision of his career.
“At the time, all of the world’s best teams had descended upon Hong Kong,” Ho recalls. “I said to myself, ‘If I don’t go, I don’t know when I’ll ever have this chance again’ because that might’ve been a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Ho wound up attending a match involving eventual champions Brazil and what he witnessed that night changed his life forever. “I was still attending coaching classes back then and I remember I was worried that I wouldn’t pass the exams,” he says now, with a broad smile underneath his mask. “I don’t recall who Brazil were playing that night but the way that (Brazil) played left a lasting impression on me. Their style, their pace…it was all very eye opening. I wondered to myself that night whether I would ever have the chance to coach a futsal side?”
Although the match that night left a seed in Ho’s mind, it would not bloom until a few years later. The coach did, however, pass his exams and began coaching summer camps soon after he received his license.
“Back in the day, there were only eight districts that ran summer camps and I caught my first big break coaching in Kowloon South,” he said. “Fortunately, the supervisor for the district put a lot of trust in me, but he wanted to know directly whether I believed in myself. Of course, I said ‘yes’ and so, he assigned a large number of players to me to coach.
“After that summer, the more I coached, the more my love of coaching grew. It grew to the point where, if there was ever a summer when I didn’t coach, I would feel extremely restless.”
In 1996, Ho established his own futsal club, Pak Hei, to compete in local futsal leagues. The club have since been rebranded as Tai Po Pak Hei after winning the right to represent the district in 11-a-side competitions. Years after Pak Hei were founded, the Nike Cup or ‘Nike Five’ futsal tournament was inaugurated, which opened the doors for Hong Kongers to sign up for a city-wide futsal competition.
“In one of the early years, Liu Yik-shing joined my team and he was 12 years old at the time,” Ho said. “In our first ever match together, we lost big. We got completely smashed. (But) I told the boys post-match, ‘I promise you: One day, I will lead you to a title.’ And, after many years of trials and tribulations, we eventually achieved our dream of winning the Nike Five.”
Though his reputation has since become established in the futsal community, he regards his best achievements as his former players who’ve gone on to make a name for themselves in 11-a-side.
“The players who I pushed away from futsal (and into 11-a-side) were players who I thought had potential to play professionally because, let’s be honest, there’s no money to be made in futsal,” Ho recalls. “So, I consciously separated players who I thought were good enough to make the jump and others, like Yik-shing, who weren’t ready yet. He wasn’t big enough at the time and I felt that his ability was more suited to futsal. I used this to motivate him and he’s achieved a few things since then.”
This is an understatement, of course, as Liu has gone on to represent Hong Kong internationally in futsal and now plays as an attacking midfielder for the Pink Ribbons.
Ho is proud of the advancements in the development of futsal in Hong Kong but feels that the game still lags behind 11-a-side in terms of providing professional opportunities. Among his former players who have turned pro are Wong Wai, Ngan Lok-fung and Chan Pak-hang – all of whom are now household names in the Premier League. Alas, even Ho, himself, has stepped away from coaching futsal after agreeing to join Tai Chung – the predecessor to Resources Capital – in 2014 after many years in the 5-a-side world.
What are the differences between futsal and 11-a-side, one may ask? Well, as Liu explains, “In futsal, once you’ve dribbled past one or two players, you’re already in on goal. In 11-a-side, there’s more room for your opponents to recover. I’ve not fully adjusted to 11-a-side, to be honest. The stamina, the pace and the physicality of the foreign players are all things I need to get accustomed to.”
Though not all of the tactics of futsal can be copied to the 11-a-side game, Ho remains enamoured with the principles of keeping the ball on the ground, controlling matches via the control of possession and the use of off the ball runs to create space – the same tactics which caused him to fall in love with futsal in the first place. It is because of these principles that led the club to hire their current head coach Joan Esteva in order to train Resources Capital’s players to play a Spanish style of play, or tiki taka, which incorporates many these ideas. The introduction of the Spaniard has led to an overhaul of not only how the players play, but also in the way that they think and train.
“Under Joan, we do a lot less conditioning,” says winger Gabriel Ho, describing what it is like to learn under Esteva. “Even when we do condition sessions, it’s always with a ball because the Spanish really like to emphasize familiarity with having a ball at your feet. In their culture, to run without the ball, for the sake of conditioning, is pointless.
“Now think about our culture: What coach in Hong Kong doesn’t ask their players to run, and run, and run? But Joan rarely asks us to do that, and when he does, we always do it with a ball at our feet. This is an innovative approach to training, from a local perspective. We’re never bored at training but afterwards, we’re completely knackered.”
Without hesitation, Ho can list the advantages of the Spanish style of play. “Players of any height can play (this style). We remove a barrier for shorter players from playing the game,” he said, referring to typical direct tactics in Hong Kong which place an emphasis on floating crosses into the box and winning aerial duels.
If the Pink Ribbons’ style of play sounds familiar, then perhaps it is because Kitchee have already started down this road years before. In 2009 – a year after Spain were crowned champions of Europe – Kitchee hired Joseph Gombau as their head coach. The Spaniard, who had spent the previous six years as a youth coach at Barcelona, revolutionized the Bluewaves’ playing philosophy over his three seasons at the club – a philosophy which they retain to this day. Ho is inspired by what Kitchee have done and questions why more clubs are not following suit.
“(Hong Kongers) used to praise Arsenal for the beauty of their passing and we praise the Liverpool team of today for their gegenpress (counter press). But in the past ten years, apart from Kitchee, who are imitating Barca’s style of play, how many clubs can claim to have a unique style or one that can attract fans to turn up?
“Hong Kong fans love high octane, attacking football. Everyone wants to see this, and you know that if you play this way, you will make fans. I understand that some of the clubs and even the national team are under pressure to deliver results. But since we (have the unwavering support) of our bosses, why not go out and attack fearlessly?
“So what if we’re relegated at the end of the year? It’s more rewarding to play this way.”
Hanson Wong is a co-owner of Resources Capital and one of the the public faces of the club. He made his fortune in real estate and securities trading, which makes one curious why he would choose to fund a professional club under such uncertain economic conditions?
“This will sound like a cliché but from a young age, I’ve always loved football,” Wong says, before cracking a hearty laugh. “But like most people my age, sometimes, I find myself nostalgic for the 70s and 80s in local football because the standard of football nowadays cannot compare to that era. I’ve always felt that if I had the means, I should try and do my part to unite other entities and organizations to lift the standard of youth development.”
Wong has been involved in football for over ten years. As he recalls, in his first year of leading Tai Chung, the club had finished in a promotion spot in the Second Division but because most of the players were unwilling to quit their day jobs, Tai Chung ultimately declined to join the top flight. Afterwards, Wong spent a brief time working with Sham Shui Po during their maiden season in the top flight, but the club were unable to survive the drop after their first year. Disheartened, he returned to Tai Chung and changed his outlook.
“After doing this for several years, I found that achievements such as finishing runners-up in the Second Divisions didn’t make me happy,” Wong admitted. “On the other hand, I felt that if I could produce a player who was good enough to go to Europe or play in the Chinese Super League – that would make me even prouder.”
In 2016, Tai Chung were rebranded as Resources Capital in an effort to start a fresh chapter in the club’s history. The Pink Ribbons overhauled their club from the top on down, capping their moves with the hiring of Esteva in 2019, to build a synchronized and symmetrical structure.
“We hired (Esteva) because we hoped to use the same tactical system throughout every level of our club,” Wong said. “Our style of play is based on keeping the ball on the ground as much as possible and we hope to promote this in Hong Kong. Joan is in charge of instructing all of the coaches at the club on how to implement this system, from the U-5s all the way up to the first team. The reasoning is that we want all of our players to be familiar with these tactics.
“In addition, we specifically recruited foreigners who are familiar with this style. We didn’t do it because we wanted to be more competitive in the Premier League. We did it because we wanted them to help us better implement the Spanish style at our club and give our players a better feel for how it works.”
Critics will invariably argue that in first team football, the results should come first, and player development should be left to the youth levels. Those same critics will identify clear weaknesses in the squad – the lack of height, hold up play and goals — as evidence that the club need outside help. They will be even more befuddled by the fact that Ho has ruled out signing Manuel Bleda, formerly of Kitchee and Eastern fame, even as the Spanish striker is currently training with the club and could surely give the Pink Ribbons a boost. But despite their $9 million budget, Wong states that Resources Capital are reluctant to add foreign reinforcements because they do not intend on competing for silverware.
“What we care most about is not the results, but the development of local players,” he explained. “If we add too many foreigners, then local players will have less opportunities to learn and grow, which would run contrary to our goal.”
As the Director of Football, Ho concurs with this approach, adding that the team can lose fewer aerial battles if the players keep the ball on the ground as much as possible when in possession.
“I often ask myself, ‘Why did I get into coaching?’”, he begins, explaining the club’s long-term vision. “The answer is because I want to produce more local strikers and centre backs. I will concede that the easiest way to improve at those positions is to sign foreigners but there are risks. So, instead, why don’t we provide a platform for youngsters to prove themselves and improve?”
In his mind, Ho believes that after Chan Siu-ki and Chan Wai-ho both retired at the end of last season, it laid bare the lack of capable local replacements who were ready to replicate the standards set by the two Chan’s in their prime. Off the top of his head, Ho was only able to name Pegasus’ Sun Ming-him and Happy Valley’s Yip Cheuk-man as local players who might one day be as good as the two Chan’s. Furthermore, the coach argues that if more teams begin to play a less physical and more technical brand of football, then the national team can rely less on naturalized players at the two positions.
“In the first six seasons of the J. League, there was no relegation,” Ho said. “This encouraged clubs to use more young players. Given the current state of local football, why shouldn’t the HKFA contemplate this idea?”
How deep is Resources Capital’s commitment to developing players? So deep, in fact, that the results are almost irrelevant to club management.
“Our philosophy from the beginning was never that we needed to be in the top flight,” Wong said. “If we weren’t accepted for promotion then, bluntly, I would’ve spent the additional funds that I put into the club this year on community outreach and we probably would’ve done a good job at that.
“But I’ve always said that the benefits of getting promoted are twofold: First, it proves that our plan was a success. It shows that we were able to take a group of players who were playing at a First Division standard and improve them to Premier League levels.
“Second, when we recruit young players into our academy, it will be easier for us to attract talented players. When we were in the First Division, we were not well known and not a lot of kids came to our tryouts. But after we were promoted, in this year alone, there were two to three times as many players who turned up at every level and the quality for us to choose from is better than ever.”
Wong argues that the outlook of the club will not change, regardless of how the rest of the season goes.
“The long-term strategy of the club is development first,” he maintains. “We want to produce players who are good enough to play for the first team and if they are good enough, then they’ll be able to keep us in the Premier League. Now if, after a year, their abilities are not at Premier League levels, and we haven’t earned enough points to avoid the drop, then we’ll go back down and start over again until we establish ourselves in the top flight.
“Our ethos has always been about the development of players and not to chase results. We hope that the kids will continue to play using the Spanish style and represent Hong Kong in the future or go abroad. They don’t have to stay at Resources Capital forever. If even one of them is good enough to go to Europe or play in the CSL, then we’d consider that a success. And if we can produce players of that calibre, then naturally, we’re going to have a team to can contend for trophies and there will be fewer concerns about adding reinforcements.”
Wong’s ambitions are not limited to matters on the pitch. The boss believes that the biggest hurdle holding back the development of the sport is the lack of pitches.
“You may have noticed the words Future Hong Kong Football Development Charity Limited printed (in Chinese) on the chest of our kits,” he said. “That’s the name of the R-88 (tax-exempt charity) that we’ve established in order to apply for funds from the Jockey Club and build our own training ground. We’d looked at land in Tai Po, North District and Sham Shui Po where we could build, but the feedback we received was that we needed to establish a charity first. So, while we’ve applied for funding, perhaps, because we haven’t had much of a track record, that’s the reason why we haven’t heard back from them.”
Ho recounts a story that he has used previously to motivate his players. It involves Yuen Long, who had made an improbable run in 1979 to the FA Cup title. At the time, the underdog Tangerines’ opponents in the Final were juggernauts Seiko, a club which had some of the top players in Hong Kong on their payroll and were managed by Ho’s idol Chan Fai-hung. Yuen Long, on the other hand, could only afford a squad entirely built with local players. In a classic David vs Goliath matchup, the plucky underdogs famously upset Seiko, dealing the Double Chevrons their first loss in all competitions that season.
“The Yuen Long manager told his players that if they weren’t able to win a header, then they should at least make it difficult for their opponent to win that header. Every time the other team were unable to head the ball cleanly, Yuen Long won half the battle. I told our players this story before we played Eastern (in the first of two meetings thus far) and I explained to them that, even though their players are taller than ours, we have to at least attempt to make life difficult for them.”
In spite of twin 5-0 defeats at the hands of Eastern, Ho remains bullish on the team’s style of play.
“It was always possible that if we (tried to play on the front foot), we were going to lose all 27 matches this season,” he said. But if we win one match playing the way that we know best, then we’ve already taken a big step towards success. We’ve gotten better as the season has gone on. Even though we’ve lost twice to Eastern, the best we’ve played all season were the first 20 minutes of the second match against them.”
Resources Capital’s high press on display against Eastern. (Credit: on.cc)
To understand Resources Capital is to understand Ho’s pedagogy, which is based on the encouragement of individuals to be adventurous and to express themselves. But to dig deeper and understand his pedagogy, one must also understand his upbringing.
Growing up, the coach admits that family circumstances prevented him from attending many matches or watching on television, and his own struggles academically prevented him from becoming a school teacher. But internally, Ho always wondered how his life might have turned out in a parallel universe, with a different childhood. It is unsurprising, therefore, that as a coach, Ho tries to serve as a mentor to his players – a mentor that he wished his younger self could have had.
“When I started out as a coach, I had a lot of players who also struggled academically,” he recalls. “So, I told them this: I can’t teach you how to improve your grades. I can only hope that, through football, I can give you some satisfaction in life. My objective is that every time you step out onto the pitch, people will know your name.
“I got into youth development because I wanted to provide opportunities for (underprivileged) kids like myself to get their regain their dignity through football. I love working with young people because they’re very impressionable; All they need is for someone to give them guidance. They’ll all make missteps along the way, but I believe that, inevitably, they’ll find their way.”
Are Resources Capital on the forefront of a renaissance in how Hong Kong clubs approach development? Or will they become like Kitchee – a club who play a unique style but remain an outlier in local football?
Ho certainly hopes that the answer is the former and that the creative fire of the Pink Ribbons’ will ignite the rest of the local scene.
“I don’t expect to win trophies. I only hope to influence people to think outside the box and steer the future of Hong Kong football in a positive direction,” he stated, calmly. “You can laugh at or criticize our results, but first, please try and understand the concept behind our philosophy.
“Because, what is ‘youth development’ at the end of the day? To me, it goes beyond football – it means building character. The end product of any development system should be to help each player grow as a person so that, whether they become professional footballers or not, they are upstanding members of society.”