Mark Sutcliffe is the man tasked with raising the profile of the beautiful game in Hong Kong and by all accounts he is doing a fine job. The inaugural season of the Hong Kong Premier League saw higher attendance and a four team race for the title while Hong Kong’s World Cup qualifiers have been a phenomenal success with the national team becoming the talk of the town and tickets for home games have become a hot commodity.
Sutcliffe kindly took time out to have a short discussion about the highlights of the past season while looking forward to the 2015/2016 season.
How was the first Premier League for you?
I think my overall assessment is that it was a step in the right direction and that it was a lot more positive than the previous season’s first division in that it was much more competitive particularly at the top, with the four top teams vying for the title more or less until the end of the season. We were successful in getting higher spectator numbers than average and some of the games between the top teams generated significantly more spectators. It was nice to have a sponsor and it was good that we addressed some of the issues like match manipulation and all the matches were monitored in terms of betting patterns.
It was good that we briefed the players at the start of the season about their obligations and responsibilities and I think that it was really positive that we had the club license system introduced and we are encouraging more clubs to get involved in youth development so there are lots of positives to take from it and obviously ‘Rome was not built in a day’ so there is always room for improvement and we are looking to build on that for next season.
Is there a close relationship between the league and all the teams?
We have a monthly meeting between all the clubs. It is difficult to answer in simple terms because generally there is a camaraderie between all the teams as they know they are all part of the Premier League but as you expect in any place, there will be rivalries between the clubs and it can be intensified because Hong Kong is such a small place. The clubs are vying for the same players and the players are not necessarily on long term contracts and so the rivalry is understandable and it can sometimes create some divisions between the clubs but generally speaking, we are all working towards the same general objectives and that is to raise the general standard of football in Hong Kong.
If all the clubs work collectively then they improve the standard of play on the pitch and then we get more spectators and if we get more spectators then we get more sponsors and we get more TV rights and it is part of them contributing to this snowball effect for local football. So they know they need to work together but you will always get rivals and that is normal.
Will there be any changes in the Premier League next season?
We are always looking to improve it and certainly on the marketing and information side we are looking to do more. We are hoping and are finalizing the teams at the moment and hope to have ten teams for next season which will mean more matches. We will be looking at the format of the club competition and will make it a requirement that each club has to play a minimum of 24 matches in the season for both league and cup competitions. What we are trying to do is to work with the clubs to generate more money through marketing and game receipts so that they can employ better players, some local and some foreign because in the survey that we had done recently by the Hong Kong University Social Science Research Center, said that the play on the pitch was the most important factor that determined if fans would come and watch matches. It was all about the quality of play on the pitch.
Do you think there will be a knock on effect from the frenzy over World Cup qualifying?
Yes as I said, the momentum is building in local football. It has been in the doldrums for 10 to 20 years and people can see that it is changing now and if you get the bug for watching football then you will want to go and watch live football. Ssitting in front of a screen watching it is not the same as when you are at the ground itself and you have the atmosphere and you go with friends and can really get involved with it. If people start to follow the HK team, they will get to know the players and want to see them week in, week out.
What is the ‘characteristic’ of the Hong Kong team?
The campaign we have is “HK Fight”, it is about passion and doing the best that you can for Hong Kong. We are not the most skillful of nations so it is about passion and heart and much of this reflects the personality of Coach Kim who is very much ‘heart on his sleeve’ and very passionate and very dedicated and wants to win for Hong Kong. I think this rubs off on the players and from what I have seen the atmosphere in the camp is excellent and for the FA, we make sure they had good preparation before the qualifiers through a training camp in Malaysia and the guys who came back are very unified and have gelled well together as a team.
How is the build up to the China away game for you and the team?
Well for me, it is pretty easy really, all I have to deal with is the administration and the politics(!). There’s less to do with it being an away match. As for the team, we have all the preparations planned now including a pre-match training camp in China. We will give our players the very best chance to get a result that’s for sure. Our coaches are currently working out tactics and analysing the strengths and weaknesses of our opponents as they do before every match. At the moment the players are in full pre-season training with their clubs and they will join the Hong Kong team for intensive training at the end of August. We have some momentum behind because of the excellent two results gained so far. Everyone’s looking forward to the match and feeling confident.
Do you think Hong Kong can get a result?
If you look at the respective rankings, you would have to say that it will be difficult. Also many people tell me that the current China team is looking very good, perhaps their best team for a long time.
The atmosphere in the stadium will be intimidating for our players and it is a huge match for everyone. Having said all of that, football can sometimes throw up unexpected results. I am an optimist so I will say, yes we can get a result….but I definitely don’t underestimate the scale of the challenge.
Christopher KL Lau is the Hong Kong Correspondent for Wildeast Football.
All pictures courtesy of Chris K L Lau and the HKFA.
He can be found on twitter here: https://twitter.com/Chris_KL_Lau